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.)
Reading your kid's texts is part of responsible parenting. But there's only one scenario (described below) where we think it's OK 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'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.
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.
It takes a parent with ironclad boundaries not to sneak a peek at what's happening on their kid's phone. But a full-on investigation without your kid's knowledge and consent probably won't end well. Spot checks, conversations, and transparency should be sufficient to keep tabs on your kid while preserving your bond. And when there's friction, suggest a family-wide media break and start over fresh when things settle.