You’re sitting there minding your own business when a nearby phone buzzes. U up?, it says, beckoning you closer. Only, it’s not your phone—it’s your kid’s. Do you pick it up? Do you “accidentally” swipe the screen for a closer look? If you’ve made up your mind—yes, you read your kid’s texts, or no, you don’t—more power to you!
But if the question prompts a cascade of conflicting emotions, self-serving justifications, and guilt, we can help. Like every other aspect of raising kids in the digital age, the answer is complicated. (And if your kid is “BC”—before cellphones—use this as a chance to prep for the next phase.)
Should I read my kid’s texts?
Reading your kid’s texts is part of responsible parenting. But there’s only one scenario (described below) where we think it’s okay to do it without telling your kid. Most kids view their phones as their personal property, and it can become a proxy for their blossoming independence. So don’t sneak.
Maintaining trust—especially in the vital years leading up to the teens—is critical to a healthy relationship (and it goes both ways). Your kids may not like it, but they’ll respect you for being honest. They’ll also understand your point of view better if you explain why you want to see what’s on their phone:
It helps to keep them safe. Since so much of kids’ lives happens on devices, we need to keep tabs on whether their relationships are healthy, whether the content they’re seeing is age-appropriate, and even when they’re using their phones (such as when they’re supposed to be sleeping or in school). If you’ve already established the routine of spot checks, your kid should be expecting them. If not, make it clear it’s for their safety and that keeping them safe is part of your job.
It reinforces your media rules. How can you tell they’re following your rules if you can’t see the evidence? You need to make sure they’re texting with people they know and that their relationships and activities are mostly positive. Tell your kid what you want to peek at and what you’re looking for. A few examples:
• Texts show you whom they’re talking to and at what times. They’ll also provide a sense of whether the interactions are mostly beneficial.
• Apps show you their online activities: what they’re reading, playing, listening to, and sharing.
• Settings, including the ones on the phone and in individual apps, show you how they’re protecting their privacy, whether they have location services on or off, and even how much time they’re spending in their apps.
It lets you know when they’re ready for more responsibility. The better they manage their online lives, the more you can loosen the reins. If they’re following your rules, such as asking for permission before downloading apps, not hacking your parental controls, and overall conducting themselves responsibly, the spot checks can become less frequent—and maybe you can ease up on other restrictions they’ve proven they can handle.
What are the downsides of reading my kid’s texts?
It’s just one piece of the puzzle. As much as we’ve been told that our kids are living online, they also very much live in the real world. The contents of their phones will give you some clues—but they could be misleading, taken out of context, or misunderstood. Yes, it can be hard to get your tween talking sometimes, but keep making the effort. An effective way to engage them is by asking what their friends are playing or doing on social media, instead of asking them directly about themselves.
You’re going to discover stuff you won’t like … and need to figure out what to do about it. You’ll have to determine for yourself what constitutes typical tween stuff (swear words, cringey ideas, exploration of mature content) and what may be signs of deeper issues (inappropriate photos, hate speech, risky apps, troubling search terms such as “suicide” and “drugs”).
Pick your battles: Use the minor issues as an opportunity to discuss your values, and give consequences for serious infractions. If you’re worried about something, do a more in-depth check of your kid’s well-being in person (we recommend the HEADSS assessment). If your kid’s having a bumpy time or hiding stuff, you can use a phone-monitoring app such as Bark or other parental control tools to receive notifications of alert words and off-limits activities.
You may invade someone else’s privacy. Sure, you have the right to keep tabs on your own kid, but digging around on their phone will inevitably uncover something about their friends. Knowing private information can put you in a really awkward spot. Use your best judgment: If you think anyone is unsafe, you should do what you can to protect them. But if it’s just something you wish you could “unsee,” keep it to yourself.
A word about Sneaking
The only situation that warrants spying is if you suspect something is seriously wrong. When your Spidey sense kicks in and you notice any signs of behavior change, declining grades, poor sleep, major hostility, withdrawal, or secrecy, you have a solid reason to check the phone without your kid knowing. And if you don’t find anything? Consider coming clean. Your kid may be upset at first, but if you use it as a chance to discuss what’s going on with them and how you might help them feel better—they’ll most likely forgive you.