'I took my anxious foster daughter's phone away – she is a completely different person now'

Teenage girl with phone - Moment RF
Teenage girl with phone - Moment RF

For weeks, I’d had a sneaking suspicion something was up with our foster daughter, Katie*. She seemed distracted and was spending more time in her room, which isn’t unusual for a 13-year-old but I was beginning to worry she was retreating from us. She was hanging out in the kitchen less, seemed quieter at dinner, and went to her bedroom every night after we’d eaten rather than staying to watch TV.

I decided to watch and wait. Our other foster daughter has been living with us for nearly three years, but Katie has only been with us six months so I’m still getting to know her emotional rhythms. I didn’t want to jump the gun. Any parent knows trust is everything – lose it and you risk them pulling away from you further. But when you are trying to protect a young teenager who isn’t your own, it’s arguably even more important to go gently. If you’re going to keep them safe, you need them to feel they can tell you when they’re struggling.

Over the 10 years my husband and I have been fostering, I’ve learned there is no real secret to parenting foster teenagers. Every one is different – some will push your boundaries to their very limits, others relish the safety your home can provide. But I now know the hard bits are just as rewarding as the good bits.

Katie is a naturally quiet, anxious girl. She’s young for her age and has autism which can make her more vulnerable, but until recently she’d always been open with us and happy to spend time with the family. Two weeks ago, I decided I was going to have to intervene. Something was clearly off.

“Right love,” I said, one evening after school. “I’m sorry about this but I’m going to need you to give me your phone.”

It didn’t take long to work out what was happening. Katie had developed a virtual relationship with a girl she had met on TikTok. They’d talked for a while, then exchanged numbers and begun talking on WhatsApp. As I scrolled through the messages, I was having visions of this girl actually being a much older man posing as a teenager.

There wasn’t anything hugely explicit about the messages, but there didn’t need to be – Katie had been so unsettled it clearly wasn’t good for her to be talking to this person. I confiscated the phone, explaining my worries and that I could see it wasn’t making her happy. To her credit, she got it and didn’t kick up too much of a fuss.

In my opinion, the quickest way to work out what’s going on with a teenage girl is to rifle through her phone. It will not feel great for either of you; there will inevitably be tears, but I’ve learnt the hard way that their whole lives are on those devices.

These days, it’s not at parties or behind the bike sheds that the real danger lies, it’s on social media. It’s all the apps contained within that block of metal that sits in their hands and goes everywhere with them. If they’re being bullied at school they can’t leave it at the gates, it’ll follow them home on Snapchat. They are exposed to things they are too young to see, and put themselves out there for strangers to ogle. Not to mention the daily interaction with apps made by tech companies that want them to be hooked.

When you’re a foster parent, setting boundaries with your kids’ phones is one of the hardest things to navigate. But on the other hand, for a foster teenager, finding themselves in a strange place with a strange family, their phone can become a safe haven – the only part of their world that feels like their own, where they can have some control. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s good for them to feel some sense of agency. But children who have ended up in care tend to be pretty vulnerable. They don’t see risk in the same way as others might, they just want validation. They’ll often use their phone to make connections, just wanting to feel happy and liked. If a stranger pays them attention online and it feels good for just long enough, suddenly they’re vulnerable to being groomed.

The other challenge is how to balance what you consider to be good boundaries with what their birth parents want, particularly because often I’m enforcing someone else’s rules. When you start fostering, you’ll be given a document via a social worker with expectations from the birth parents. That might include no phone after 8pm, or no social media at all, or it could include nothing of the sort and you’re left to work out what you believe is right for the child. I’ve been extremely lucky that one accusation I’ve never had thrown at me is: “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my mum.” Usually, they understand I’m just trying to do what’s best for them.

Since confiscating Katie’s phone, she is like a different person. She’s engaging with us more, she spends more time downstairs chatting and helping me cook, we’re back watching TV together. The other day, Katie even said she couldn’t see herself spending so much time on her phone once I give it back. I’ll believe that when I see it, but for now, it’s a relief to have our girl back.

*Names have been changed for anonymity purposes

 As told to Eleanor Steafel

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Have you set any boundaries with your kids and their devices? Do you manage their screen time? Join the conversation in the comments section below