Should you look through your kid’s phone?

Wondering whether you should sneak a peek at your kid's phone? Here's what you need to know.

Whether or not to look through our kids’ phones can be a parenting lightning rod issue. If you do, some will say you’re invading your child’s privacy and creating lifelong trust issues. If you don’t, others will say you’re negligent and might as well hand over your car keys and let your 12-year-old joyride alone down I-95. Is there any middle ground? 

Parents will make different decisions about whether or not to look through their kids’ phones, so we can’t give you a definite yes or no. But we can give you a roadmap for how to think through this issue, so you can make the best decision for your family. 

What you definitely should do when it comes to kids’ phones.

The data on parental monitoring suggests that kids whose parents are more aware of what they’re up to day-to-day tend to have better outcomes, like lower depressive symptoms and fewer risky behaviors. But how to be aware when it comes to kid’s phones is the question. How can we be “aware enough” without veering into snowplow parent territory or undercutting kids’ development into healthy, happy, independent people? 

Here’s what you should definitely do as a baseline: 

  • Ask your kids what they’re up to on their phones - and be genuinely curious about what they’re doing behind their screens. 
  • Have open, honest conversations (Not sure where to start? Tech Parenting 101 will walk you through tricky topics step-by-step. If you want to be the first to know when it launches, join our waitlist here (insert button).)
  • Create an environment where kids feel comfortable telling you about tough stuff that’s happening, like when they see meanness or a friend’s post that seems concerning. (Hint: if kids fear we’ll immediately take away their phones, they’ll be less likely to come to us for help– even if they actually need it.)

Okay, now the trickier part. Should you physically check kids’ phones or use some kind of monitoring software? 

Many parents have a strong, knee jerk reaction to the idea of direct monitoring. The anti phone-checkers feel strongly that it’s a violation of privacy. The pro phone-checkers feel it’s a necessary step to keep kids safe. What we all have in common, though, is that we love our kids and also sometimes want to throw their phones directly into a pile of flaming garbage.

Should I read their texts?

It depends. Whether and how much to monitor your child’s device is going to depend on a few  different factors, including your own values and preferences, as well as your child’s age, history, and needs. We’ll break these all down for you– but first, you should know:

  • Most parents of 13 and 14-year-olds look at their child’s phones at least occasionally. Reasonable parents will make different decisions about whether and how much to monitor their children’s devices.That said, nationally representative data from 2018 suggests that 72% of parents of 13- and 14-year-olds at least sometimes look at their teen’s call records or text messaging history. 
  • Appropriately, the number of parents who monitor starts to drop as teens get older. While a majority of parents monitor their 13-14-year-olds phones, this drops as kids get older. Just under half of parents (48%) are still looking through the phones of their 15- to 17-year-olds.  
  • Your goal is to keep them safe, but also to help them become more independent: At the core of questions about monitoring is a question about how to balance your child’s independence versus safety. It’s worth being thoughtful about your approach because both are important for healthy development. Showing respect for their privacy is a key step on the path toward more trust and independence.    

My kid is about to get their first phone, and I want to do occasional checks of their text messages. What do I say to them?

When preteens and younger teens are getting their first phones, we recommend at least some kind of parental involvement– at least at first. Talk clearly about your rules and limits, and your expectations (Check out our guide to [9 essential conversations before the first phone for help knowing what to cover!). If you decide to monitor your kid’s messages, you might try this approach: 

Show you care: I love you and I care so much about you.

Explain your reasoning: I’m sure you’re excited to get your phone, and I want you to know I trust you. At the same time, having a phone is a big change. It’s my job as a parent to make sure you’re safe, and part of that is making sure things go well with your phone.

Frame it as a learning process: Learning to use a phone safely and responsibly takes practice, and I’m here to help you while you’re learning.

Let them know you’re open to talk: I hope you’ll come talk to me if you run into anything you’re confused or worried about.

Explain your plan: One way I’m going to make sure you’re safe is by [occasionally checking what’s happening on your phone] or [having you show me what’s happening on your phone] or [asking you to show/tell me who you’re talking to and what you’re posting], etc. 

Promise not to jump to conclusions: If there’s anything concerning, I promise I’ll come to you first, and we can talk about it before doing anything else.

Make a plan to re-evaluate: Once we both feel comfortable with how things are going with your phone, we’ll revisit this plan. 

If they say “but don’t you trust me?!”: I trust you, and I know that you’re going to use your phone in a way that’s responsible. But everyone makes mistakes, and I want to make sure I can help you learn when that happens. There are also some things that are out of your control when you start using a phone (like things people send you, or people who try to message you), and it’s my job to make sure you’re safe.

Balance independence and safety to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids 

Teens (and pre-teens) are working toward becoming independent, functioning adult members of society. To do so, they need some privacy, some space to take risks, some opportunities to make mistakes. Still, you’ve surely also noticed that teens and tweens are not yet adult members of society. They need some guardrails to keep them safe. And they need an adult to be generally aware of what they’re up to and ready to give support and guidance when they feel in over their heads.

Tell them your phone plan so they know what to expect 

When it comes to fostering both independence and safety with phones, the first step is communication. No matter what approach you take to monitoring, it’s essential that you talk about it openly. Share your perspective with them, communicate about the plan, and listen to your child’s perspective, too. 

If you decide to directly monitor your child’s device, you should make this clear to them in advance. Spying—secretly reading their texts without them knowing you’re going to do so—is not a good idea. It’s likely to backfire. If you decide to monitor a tween’s phone, explain clearly what you’re going to look at, when, and why. 

You might say something like: my job is to keep you safe, and to help you learn how to use this phone. Sometimes what we say in a text feels private, but it doesn’t always stay private. Your friends’ parents might be reading their messages, or someone else might see it. To help you as you’re learning, I’m going to occasionally check your messages. 

Consider your kid - no one knows them better than you! 

The most important consideration in whether and how to monitor your child’s device is your child. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Here are some child-specific factors you might consider:

  • Age (and maturity). Younger or less mature kids are going to need more supervision, but as teens age, they’re going to need more independence. If your kid is 11, 12, maybe 13, phone checks can make sense. But if they’re older than that, it’s important to start loosening the reins and giving them more independence, respecting their privacy and their relationships. Be warned: teens’ desires for privacy are developmentally appropriate, and age inappropriate monitoring can drive them to hide their behaviors from you in sneakier ways. 
  • Personal History. If your kid is pretty responsible, follows the rules, is open with you, comes to you when they have a problem, etc., checking their phone might not be necessary. If your kid tends to take more risks, maybe has a harder time following rules, is struggling emotionally, or tends not to share much, checking their phone might be a better idea. Teens who are prone to more rule-breaking and risky behavior in their offline lives are likely going to need more supervision online, too. 
  • Tech (In)Experience. If you are going to directly monitor your child’s device, the best time to do it is when they first get a phone. At that time, they’ll have less experience with using their own device, and likely need more support. It’s also (much) easier to set the expectation that you’ll be monitoring or doing “spot checks” upfront. Make sure your kids know that your goal is to help them be responsible and independent, and you’ll keep revisiting and revising rules as they get older. 
  • Serious Concerns. If you have serious concerns about your child’s health or safety—for example, if you suspect they may be harming themselves or using drugs or chatting with people who put them at risk— checking their phone can be essential.  

There are some other considerations you’ll want to keep in mind when deciding what to do:

Communicate your expectations

What are the other pieces of your tech parenting plan? There is almost no situation in which direct monitoring of a child’s device will work as a standalone approach. If you decide to do it, make sure it’s coupled with other strategies like: regular communication about tech, clear rules and expectations for tech use, and validation for tech struggles.  

Decide what’s realistic

It’s typically not a good idea (and also, incredibly impractical) to read every text message your 12-year-old sends. Many families find that an occasional check is plenty. In fact, simply setting the expectation that you’ll do “spot checks,” without ever actually needing to do them, can sometimes be enough to encourage a child to think twice before they hit ‘send.’ You might also consider slightly more frequent checks when they first get a phone, and taper off over time.

Pick a strategy

How will you check? Some families do an occasional scan of recent texts, messages, and/or posts. Others have their kids give them a “tour” of what they’re up to. Others boldly hover near their phone-using child, stealing occasional glances and asking what are you up to? Choose your own adventure!   

Be ready to see stuff you don’t like

What will you do if you come across something you don’t like? This is an important one. Psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour compares direct phone monitoring to a full-body CT scan. It will pick up on any big problems, which is great. But it will also pick up on some other stuff—bad language, inappropriate jokes—that you kind of wish you didn’t see in the first place. Our view? Let the small stuff go as much as possible. You’ll have more credibility if you need to address something bigger.

The Bottom Line on Looking Through Kids’ Phones

There’s no data to suggest that reading your child’s text messages is something you need to do. There’s also no data to suggest that doing so—when communicated in advance and paired with other, age-appropriate tech parenting strategies—is something you shouldn’t do. For many families, occasionally checking their child’s device is one component of an effective tech parenting plan. Remember that teens need more privacy as they get older to help them develop into healthy, independent young adults. 

This blog is adapted from a post Jackie wrote for her email newsletter, Techno Sapiens. You can read the original and subscribe to Techno Sapiens here. The script shared above is lightly modified from an interview Jackie did with Emily Oster, which you can find here.