The problem with phones is that they are so incredibly necessary. Want to limit your kid’s sugar intake? Keep candy out of the house. Want to keep them away from cell phones? Then they can’t do homework, check in with social groups, or text or call you, ever—and the list goes on.
Unlike my first cell phone, a flip phone that could only send and receive 100 texts a month, phones are so advanced now that they come with an ever-changing, unique set of problems that can seem overwhelming for already stretched-thin parents.
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You could read all the texts on your tween’s phone and still not know what they’re up to if you didn’t check WhatsApp or their TikTok DMs. And that’s assuming you even know the right apps-of-the-moment to look at. Not to mention, the act of going through their phone in the first place could be seen as a huge breach of trust by your kids. After all, you wouldn’t demand to read their private diaries—so is a cell phone any different? What’s a worried mom to do?
For parents straddling the line between protecting their kids and crossing privacy boundaries, we talked to experts for tips on when (and if!) it’s OK to snoop on your kid’s phone.
Should parents check their child’s phone?
The answer is… complicated. “It depends,” Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, adolescent medicine physician and researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells Motherly. “You need to consider several factors, including age, whether going through their phone is a part of your family agreement when they received their phone, and if they will be present while you go through it.”
She adds, “I’ve heard many times that going through your kid’s phone without permission is comparable to your parents going through your diary without your knowledge.” As someone who kept my middle school journal under lock-and-key, this sounds mortifying for kids—and damaging for your parent-child relationship. Yet, it’s still important to stay aware of what your kids are up to.
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Sophie Pierce, PsyD, child and adolescent psychologist based in Los Angeles, agrees. She tells Motherly, “With technology comes some amount of risk, and going through a child’s phone can help kids navigate this responsibility safely.”
She also recommends talking to your kids about this beforehand. “It’s important for parents to be clear on their intentions before going through their child’s phone—it’s one thing to be on the lookout for potential risk factors, and quite another to seek out your child’s secrets through confidential texts with friends,” Dr. Pierce adds.
Is there a way to respectfully monitor your kid’s phone?
Sometimes parents want to use mobile monitoring apps to keep track of what their kids are doing on their devices. This sounds good, but kids hate it. A 2018 study of 736 children-written reviews of mobile online safety apps from Google Play found 76% of kids (ages 8-19) gave the apps a single star, explaining that the apps were “overly restrictive and invasive of their personal privacy, negatively impacting their relationships with their parents.” Not exactly a way to foster healthy communication and teach your kids the importance of boundaries.
Luckily, there are ways to develop safe boundaries for parents and kids, but it may take some trial and error, according to Dr. Pierce. Start with communication and listen to their input. “The most respectful way that a parent can go through their child’s phone is by practicing open communication,” says Dr. Piece.
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“Children should be aware when they get their first phone, that parents may go through their phone from time to time,” she continues. “Parents can emphasize that the reason they are going through their phone is because safety is important to them and that they want to teach their children to be good digital citizens. It’s also important for parents to highlight that going through their child’s phone is not a punishment of any kind, but a way to protect kids.”
Secretly checking their phone is not OK, according to Dr. Moreno, who recommends “looking at the device together, as it’s an opportunity to build trust and communication.”
She adds, “Snooping bypasses both trust and communication and often does more harm to the parent-child relationship than good. You will immediately lose trust with your child, which can take a long time to rebuild.”
Should there be different rules depending on age?
Age isn’t as important as your child’s developmental functioning and overall maturity, according to Dr. Pierce.
“Like many other aspects of childhood, phones require earned trust from adults,” she says. “Younger children will likely require more monitoring as they learn the rules and boundaries, and parents may begin to feel more comfortable with less phone monitoring as kids grow older and consistently show they are trustworthy with their phones.”
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An example of this could look like limiting the number of apps allowed on an elementary-aged child or restricting their phone use to calls and texts only, then doing more frequent phone checks “to ensure their children are understanding the rules and boundaries,” says Dr. Pierce.
For middle-schoolers, she suggests talking about social media. “Assuming that children will be exposed to social media for the first time in middle school, it would be appropriate for parents to frequently monitor their child’s accounts to ensure optimal safety and appropriate usage,” she explains. “Again, this should be done with open communication so that parents maintain their child’s trust, and that children feel respected.”
Consider giving your high school-aged student “more freedom,” according to Dr. Pierce, and only periodically checking their phones “as previously communicated and agreed upon with their child.” She adds, “If parents suspect any kind of risk, they can check their high schooler’s phone to ensure their safety.”
By the time they get to college, parents can trust that their—adult-aged!—child has learned appropriate social media and phone usage. Dr. Pierce says, “Parents would only need to check their college kid’s phone under dire circumstances involving their kid’s safety.”
Dr. Moreno recommends using the free PhoneReady Questionnaire, which she recently helped to create in collaboration with AT&T and The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), to determine if your child is ready for a phone.
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“It is a simple online, 10-question quiz that helps parents assess whether they and their child are ready for the responsibilities of a cell phone,” she explains. “Parents are asked questions like, ‘How often does your child need a phone for their safety, such as after school?’ or ‘Are you prepared to take steps to manage your child’s technology use?’ and based on answers to the questionnaire, parents will receive a score that indicates their child’s readiness.”
The questionnaire also gives recommendations on “how and when they should be monitoring their child’s phone use based on their readiness level,” making it much easier for parents to keep their kids safe.
“Having a conversation with your child about what their needs and expectations are around cell phone use is also important,” Dr. Moreno adds.
Setting limits around social media and screen time
A 2019 study by Sell Cell found that 42% of kids are spending 30+ hours a week on their cell phones, and 40% of parents admitting to allowing their kids to use phones to give themselves a break.
While some amount of screen time is certainly OK, it can also lead to bigger problems. Your kids could be getting cyberbullied, something a 2019 Youth Behavior Surveillance System report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 15.7% of high school students nationwide reported experiencing in the last 12 months.
Or, they could be developing a phone addiction (especially if parents and peers use their cell phones a lot, according to this 2021 study), which is linked with withdrawal, silence, anxiety and depression.
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Dr. Moreno recommends her patients set up a Family Media Plan, which was recently updated by AAP with support from AT&T “to guide parents in setting media use ground rules the whole family can agree to,” she says.
“The tool helps parents set boundaries for accessing content, as well as other areas, like ways to balance screen time with other activities, how to deal with cyberbullying and how to encourage age-appropriate critical thinking on media use and digital literacy.”
And talk to your kids about what they see on their phones. “Instead of having a power-based relationship where the parents control all, you can create a healthier two-way form of communication with your child,” says Dr. Moreno, who explained that this can help establish a regular dialogue with your child built around trust, openness and safety.
Red flags that might warrant a search through your kid’s phone
If a parent suspects that their child or another child is “in any kind of risky or dangerous situation,” Dr. Pierce recommends checking their phone usage, search history and social media to intervene.
Dr. Moreno agrees, “As a physician, I always tell my patients that anything shared will remain confidential with the exception of three circumstances: self-harm, harm to others or if someone is harming you. Parents should have a similar conversation with their child around phone use and outline scenarios in which a parent will put a child’s safety over the set privacy and confidentiality rules.”
No matter what, it’s important to stay open and honest with your kids so they feel “trusted and respected.” Dr. Pierce says, “All children should be aware of their parents’ monitoring tactics regardless of age.”
Start there, and you’ll set up your kids for success.
Dr. Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, is an adolescent medicine physician and researcher.
Sophie Pierce, Psy.D., is a child and adolescent psychologist with a private practice in Los Angeles.
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