Ask The Expert

Is It OK To Go Through My Kid’s Phone... Or Is It A Total Violation Of Trust?

To peek or not to peek, that is the question.

A teen and her mom look at their phones.
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

So, you decide to get your kid a phone. It’s a nerve-racking prospect for any parent, whether your concerns are with too much screen time, their digital and physical safety, or all of the above.

And while you want to protect your child’s autonomy and privacy, it’s understandable why you might have concerns about the digital landscape they’re now inhabiting. Maybe you accidentally spot a concerning notification when their phone screen lights up near you, or perhaps you suspect they’re being cyberbullied or preyed upon by a stranger but they don’t want to discuss it with you. Is it alright to take a peek at their phone without telling them?

Ultimately, there’s no clear-cut answer, because it really depends on the specific situation, as Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, tells Scary Mommy.

To Peek or Not To Peek

No matter where you fall on the deciding line, there are several valid reasons why a parent might feel the need to go through their kid’s phone, as Hafeez explains.

  1. Safety Concerns: “Parents may be worried about their child's physical safety,” she says. “Checking their phone can provide insights into their plans and activities.”
  2. Cyberbullying: “Concerns about cyberbullying or online harassment may prompt parents to monitor their child's phone,” she notes. “Checking messages and social media interactions allows them to identify any signs of bullying.”
  3. Online Predators: “Parents may be concerned about their child's interactions with strangers online,” says Hafeez. “Monitoring messages and online contacts can help ensure their child is not conversing with potential predators.”
  4. Explicit Content: “Parents may want to ensure their child is not exposed to inappropriate or graphic content,” she says.
  5. Time Management: “Parents might be concerned about the amount of time their child spends on the phone, potentially affecting their academic performance, sleep, or physical activities,” she notes.

Privacy Policy

But some rightfully view it as an invasion of privacy, especially if you’re peeking through the phone without your kid’s knowledge.

“Monitoring a child's phone can be a complex issue, and whether it constitutes an invasion of privacy depends on factors such as the child's age, the nature of the monitoring, and the parent's intentions,” says Hafeez. “Younger children may require more supervision for safety reasons, and monitoring can be seen as a responsible parenting measure. As children grow older, it becomes crucial for parents to communicate openly with their children about the reasons for monitoring.”

While keeping tabs on your eight-year-old’s device usage might make sense, there’s a good chance your teenager won’t be so thrilled to learn you’ve been invading their digital space. “Excessive or intrusive monitoring may be perceived as an invasion of privacy, potentially straining the parent-child relationship,” notes Hafeez.

Digital Disconnect

It might seem harmless to glance at your kid’s texts or scroll through their social media messages, but it’s worth remembering that it could erode their trust in you, as Hafeez points out. Some potential repercussions:

  1. Resentment and Rebellion: “Discovering that someone has been going through their phone without permission can evoke feelings of resentment and rebellion, particularly in teenagers,” she says. “This may result in an increased desire for privacy and independence.”
  2. Impact on Parent-Child Relationship: “In the context of parent-child relationships, unauthorized phone monitoring may negatively impact the bond between parents and their children,” she adds. “It can hinder the development of trust and mutual understanding.”
  3. Reinforcement of Negative Behavior: “Constant surveillance can inadvertently reinforce negative behavior in children,” she points out. “Rather than promoting a sense of responsibility, it may teach them to become more adept at hiding their activities or developing a lack of trust in authority figures.”

Time To Talk

Instead of going through their phone without them knowing, addressing your concerns might help open up a dialogue and better understanding on both ends, says Hafeez.

“Approaching the topic of monitoring your child's phone requires a thoughtful and understanding conversation,” she notes. “Begin by expressing genuine care for their safety and well-being in the digital world. Communicate the reasons behind monitoring, ensuring they understand it's about creating a safe environment.”

You’ll also want to reiterate that you’re not judging or shaming them for anything they’re doing on their phone, and that it’s not about punishment or control. “Acknowledge and validate their feelings, address any discomfort or worries they may have, and remain open to finding compromises that respect both their privacy and the need for supervision,” says Hafeez. “Most importantly, avoid threats or ultimatums.”

There’s a solid chance you have little to be worried about, but getting caught going through their phone could turn a molehill into a mountain unnecessarily. When in doubt, a trusted therapist or mental health pro can help guide you through it and put your fears at ease, so you don’t have to turn into Inspector Gadget in leggings and slippers.