Should I check my child’s phone and what am I looking for?

teenager on mobile phone

We’re all online now. Even our kids, starting as young as two, have an online presence. 71% of teens use social media, according to a PEW survey from 2015. With instant access from smartphones, teens are constantly plugged into the internet, and while having more resources for learning available to them than ever before is a fantastic thing, the dangers that are present online for children are still very real and extremely serious.

That being said, how do we protect our children online? And how do we protect our child while maintaining mutual trust and respectful boundaries? One of the biggest questions with parents nowadays seems to be, “Should I check my child’s phone?” Not surprisingly, it’s also a question that comes with some controversy. The question of boundaries is often brought up, and with good reason.

Back when kids used diaries to spill their thoughts and feelings, parents would go through their rooms to try and find what was going on in their child’s life. We’re used to seeing this trope in movies or TV shows – the overbearing mom (usually) snoops through her child’s belongings, finds out something she wasn’t supposed to, and then flips out at her kid, punishing them for something that was really the parents’ fault in the first place.

So, should you check your child’s phone?

Yes. However, you need to talk to your child first and come up with a set of rules together before you starting taking their phones off of them to snoop through.

What sort of rules should I give my child about using their phone?

That’s really up to you and your child. Having an open and honest conversation about the dangers they can face online, and what steps you want to take with them to prevent them from falling victim to anything bad is the most important thing to do. Children are smart and once they know what to avoid and what not to do, they’ll stop any bad behaviour before it starts. Remember: stick to your side of the agreement and they’ll stick to theirs. It’s all about trust.

What should I be looking for on their phone?

  • When you check your child’s phone, you should be on the lookout for suspicious messages. They’ll be from people you don’t recognise, names that your child hasn’t mentioned to you. Kids do save their friends contact details under nicknames and emojis, though, so if you do see a string of emojis as the sender, it’s probably that. The message content is what will tip you off. Look out for invasive questions like, “What school do you go to?” “Where do you live?” “What’s the oldest you would go?” And red flag phrases such as, “They don’t have to find out.” “Age is just a number.” “If you liked me you would do it.” Any messages that pry for personal information and any messages that try to groom your child into agreeing with something they’re hesitant about are what you should be searching for. Here’s a handy guide to deciphering text lingo, so you know what your child is texting about.
  • Most messages aren’t sent using SMS anymore. That’s why you have to look in apps that have a direct messaging (DM) system, like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. These social media platforms are where predators go to get easy access to their victims. It’s horribly simple to groom unaware children over the internet and predators know this. They’ll friend your child and start up an innocuous conversation with them, trying to build up enough trust to then get away with sending them explicit photos and asking for them in return. Often children will hide these apps in folders so their parents won’t find them. Make sure to thoroughly check your child’s phone, and use the app search function by swiping down if you find anything to double check.
  • Open all of their installed apps so you know exactly what they are. Apps have misleading names and icons, so either open them when you have your child’s phone or take note of their names so you can look them up later. Some apps that should never be on your child’s phone are Tinder, OkCupid, Grindr and other dating apps. Children can easily get on these as the age verifications are simple to get past.
  • Check browser history! Children will often forget to delete it on their phones. Look out for the obvious 18+ content, but also for online streams of TV shows that are too adult for them. If you use Netflix or any other streaming service, look through the history to see if they’ve been watching inappropriate shows.

child on ipad safety first

What kind of dangers can my child face online?

There are very serious and very real, dangers that are present online. While the chances are your child won’t fall victim to them, it’s still good to be aware of them – and to teach your child about them as well. Here’s a list of things to look out for online.

  • Cyberbullying
  • Online predators
  • Sexual extortion
  • Phishing
  • Personal information being stolen
  • Scams

Conclusion: do look at your child’s phone, but be respectful about it.

PEW tells us that “92% of teens report going online daily — with 24% using the internet “almost constantly,””, so it’s important that parents talk to their children about internet safety, and the measures that they’ll take to make sure that they stay safe online. So if you think that looking through your child’s phone is a step to help them stay say, be respectful about it and talk to your child while you’re doing it. Remember to look out for unsuitable content on their phones, strange contacts and apps. If you do find anything, remember to talk to your child calmly and with respect; we all make mistakes, and learning from them is how we grow as people. Trust your child and in return, they’ll trust you.

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