If your kid has a smartphone, is it OK to look through it? Why experts recommend that parents 'disclose' monitoring

Tempted to go through your kid's phone? Read this first. (Image: Getty; illustrated by Nathalie Cruz)
Tempted to go through your kid's phone? Read this first. (Image: Getty; illustrated by Nathalie Cruz)

You walk into your child’s room and there it is: her cell phone, left unattended on the nightstand. Do you grab it and give it a quick browse? Check who she’s texting, what her text messages say, what she’s searching the internet for?

If your child isn’t aware that you check the phone, then back away from it, says Devorah Heitner, who has a Ph.D. in media/technology and society from Northwestern University and preaches mentoring over monitoring in her book Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. As tempting as it may be to grab the phone and thumb through it without anyone knowing, Heitner advises against it.

“If you do monitor, you should disclose that to your kids,” Heitner tells Yahoo Life. “Do it with them or with their knowledge. Tell them what you are looking for.”

These days children are getting phones younger and younger, meaning parents are having to address this issue earlier and earlier. According to a Pew Research Center survey done in 2020, nearly one in five parents (17%) of a child 11 or younger say their child has their own smartphone; that number jumps to 37% when it concerns children ages 9 to 11.

As a parent, you need to ask yourself why you are going through your child’s phone. Knowing your child’s strengths and weaknesses, what worries you?

“Talk with them and let them know what your concern is,” Heitner says. “Try not to freak out and panic, because then you get kids who hide more.”

Ideally, a plan will be set in place before your child ever gets a phone. Let your child know what the expectations are and what you’ll be looking for when you do check the device.

Heitner — whose next book, Growing up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World, comes out in September — points out that a child doesn’t need to go from nothing to a fully loaded smartphone. Social media apps can be added over time, as appropriate, and time limits can be set for phone usage.

Leading by example is another good way for them to learn things like boundaries and etiquette.

“Show them experiences you have had with texting,” Heitner says. “Engage with them. Ask them what they would do if they noticed a friend was being left off a group text.”

Keep in mind that the goal is setting your child up for a successful life, one in which you don't need to constantly check in on their devices.

“Remember your child is going to be using technology in personal and professional life for a long time,” Heitner says. “What’s your plan for when they are 18 and in college, or 22 and working? Will you be checking in and emailing their professors or their bosses?”

Adam Pletter, a licensed clinical psychologist in Maryland and the founder of the digital parenting resource iParent101, also disapproves of "snooping," which he considers to be the opposite of parenting. But while he believes parents should not read private diaries hidden in their child's room, online content should be handled differently. Children don't always know the danger or ramifications of sharing things over text or social media, Pletter notes, and he feels parents need to let their children know they will be monitoring their devices.

"It's about having an understanding as young as your child can that what is on the internet is not private, yet it feels private. Parents want their children to feel comfortable talking and playing with their friends and using these devices to connect and enhance life," Pletter tells Yahoo Life. "It's about joining with them to keep them safe and to help them practice regulating their thoughts and emotions. You are there to help guide them just like any other important set of parenting decisions."

Pletter suggests parents use one of various different online monitoring services (such as MmGuardian or Bark) to help keep tabs on what their children are doing. Knowing you'll be doing periodic phone checks and/or using monitoring software, will your children start deleting certain items? Pletter says probably, but the hope is they will delete less as they are more aware of being monitored since most humans behave differently when they know they are being supervised; consider your own online activity on your work laptop, versus a personal device. Teens also don't want to have that awkward discussion with parents if something concerning is found.

If you don't find any cause for concern, move on. No need to tell Johnny you read a text he sent asking about homework or inquiring about a football game. If you do find something alarming, bring it up, and keep the conversation brief.

"Otherwise, it's super-annoying," Pletter says. "Many kids don't feel comfortable talking to their parents. You want them to increasingly feel comfortable talking to you about important things as they navigate their world — on and offline."

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