What to Do If You Find Drug Content on Your Child’s Phone

Teen boy in bedroom looking toward window

Suppose you check your child’s phone or get an alert from your monitoring app and learn they’ve been messaging friends about drugs or looking at drug-related content online. You've discovered drug content on your child's phone, but you’re probably at a loss of what to do next. Read on to learn how to spot red flags, what to say when you talk to your child, and steps to keep them safe. 

Red flags for drug content on child’s phone

You may not think that your child would ever interact with drug content, but the reality is that it just takes two clicks for kids to find drugs online. Drug dealers use social media and online storefronts to sell controlled substances — which can lead to fatal results. Around six in 10 fake prescription pills sold online contain deadly doses of fentanyl, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Here are some red flags to watch for on your child’s phone: 

Emojis 

Drug culture has made use of emojis to communicate covertly about substances. Drug emojis might show up in messages or on social media profiles, signaling the sale and distribution of certain drugs without tripping social media filters. Click here for the DEA’s list of drug-related emojis. 

Frequent messages to an unknown number

If your child is messaging with an unknown number, especially if it’s been anonymized, it’s possible they’re communicating about obtaining drugs. Look at the content of the messages for drug terms or slang or references to meeting up in-person.  

Search history 

Look at your child’s search history for drug terms. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re using them — it could be nothing more than teenage curiosity — but regardless, it’s worth a conversation. 

Other signs of drug use

If you find red flags of drug use on your child’s phone, you may notice other signs as well, such as: 

  • Problems at school like skipping class or a drop in grades.
  • Physical signs such as red eyes or chronic nosebleeds.
  • Behavioral changes, including excessive effort not to let others into their room or an uncharacteristic lack of motivation. 
  • Changes with friends, such as breaking away from childhood friends or hanging out with older kids. 
  • Money issues like requests for cash with no reason given or valuable items gone missing from the home.
  • Odors of marijuana, cigarettes, or alcohol on your teen’s clothes, breath, or belongings. 
  • Drug paraphernalia (such as pipes, rolling papers, or miniature spoons) in their room, backpack, or car. 

How to talk to your child about drug content on their phone

Talking to your child about drug content on their phone is likely to be a hard conversation. But it can be a productive one with the right approach. Here are some tips: 

Trust your gut

You don’t need hard evidence that your child is using drugs to start a conversation. If your instinct tells you something is up, it’s time for a chat. 

Align with your co-parent 

The first conversation should be with your child’s other parent or caregiver to get on the same page with your approach. 

Remain calm

Try your best to remain calm when you talk to your child. Reacting from a place of extreme emotion is likely to shut down the conversation, when what you really need is open communication.

Emphasize your goal is to keep them safe 

Remember that underlying everything is your love for your child and your desire to keep them safe. Let that anchor you, and be clear with your child that their safety is your number one goal. 

Try to identify the underlying issue 

Figuring out what led your child to use (or consider using) drugs will help inform your response. Here are a few possibilities: 

  • Peer pressure
  • The desire to fit in 
  • Self-medicating
  • To show independence 
  • Testing boundaries 

Monitor your child’s phone for drug content

A growing number of experts agree that parental monitoring is an important part of keeping children safe in the digital era. “Parental monitoring” means taking steps to supervise, guide, and protect your child online and offline.

Here are some options for monitoring your child’s phone for drug content:

Parental controls 

Use the parental controls available on your child’s device and on apps or social media sites they frequent. This can help prevent your child from accessing drug content in the first place.

Monitoring service

There are tools that can help you supervise your child online. BrightCanary is a monitoring app that uses AI technology to scan your child’s text messages (even deleted ones), YouTube and Google searches, and social media activity. The app will alert you to concerns dangers so you can address them together. 

Check-ins

Make it a point to routinely sit down together to look at their device. Regular tech check-ins not only help you keep an eye on your child’s online activity, but they also help establish open communication. 

Getting help for your child 

Once you’ve figured out the severity of the issue, and hopefully identified the underlying cause, it’s time to turn your attention to supporting your child. 

Substance abuse resources

Findtreatment.gov, SAMHSA’s free helpline, or your child’s pediatrician can help connect you with resources if your child needs help quitting drugs.  

Mental health resources 

If mental health issues led your child to use drugs, or if they need help with self-esteem or social-emotional issues, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a teen and young adult helpline that can be accessed through phone, text, or chat. Findtreatment.gov and your child’s pediatrician are also good places to start. 

Quick resources

Closing thoughts 

Regularly monitoring your child’s phone can help you spot any red flags that they may be involved with drugs. If you find any warning signs, there are steps you can take to address the issue and keep your child safe. 

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