What to Know About Monitoring Your Child’s Text Messages

By Andrea Nelson
February 29, 2024
Girl texting on floor

What are the benefits of text message monitoring? Research suggests that staying aware of what your child is up to can lower depressive symptoms and lead to fewer risky behaviors. And we know that text messaging opens kids up to specific risks like viewing explicit images, cyberbullying, toxic group chats, and online predators. Given these factors, it’s wise to monitor your child’s text messages. However, exactly what shape that monitoring takes will vary from family to family. 

Is reading my child’s text messages an invasion of privacy?

Children deserve a reasonable level of privacy. Younger kids need more hands-on supervision, while older teens can have more independence, depending on their maturity level. Spying on your child (except in rare, extenuating circumstances) is a violation of that privacy. But there’s a big difference between snooping around behind your child’s back and taking an active role in their digital life. 

The key distinction is transparency. Be clear about how you expect your child to behave when they’re texting friends and what they should do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable. Let them know ahead of time that you will be monitoring their messages, and be specific about what that monitoring will look like. 

Some parents choose to make text message monitoring a condition for letting their child use their device: in order to use their phone, the child has to let their parent monitor their text messages. 

Think about it this way: you wouldn’t drop your child off in the middle of a crowd in a strange place and expect them to be fine. With parental monitoring, including text message monitoring, you’re guiding and protecting your child during a pivotal, and impressionable, time in their development.

How to monitor your child’s texts

The key to effectively monitoring your child’s texts is to pair it with other strategies. Here are some approaches we recommend: 

  • Tech check-ins: Regularly look at your child’s phone with them, discussing what you find. Keep it light and non-judgemental. The goal is to get the lay of their digital landscape and demonstrate your interest. 
  • Open-door policy: Demonstrate through words and actions that your child can come to you with their problems, and you’ll support them through it.
  • Direct monitoring: Consider doing spot-checks where you ask your child to hand over their device so you can look through it. 
  • Remote monitoring: Apps like BrightCanary scan your child’s text messages on Apple devices, alerting you to any issues. This is a great way to give older kids some privacy, while staying abreast of any concerns. Instead of reading every text message, you can step in when you get an alert.

When should parents stop monitoring their child’s texts? 

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for the right time to stop reading your child’s texts. Ideally, your involvement in their digital life should shift as they age and demonstrate maturity and responsibility. Here are some factors to consider when setting your text message monitoring strategy:

  • Age: As kids first learn to use technology, they need more guidance on how to do so safely and responsibly. But as they age, it’s vital they learn independence. Over time, take steps back and trust the groundwork you’ve laid.  
  • Maturity: Some kids are ready for independence sooner than others. Think about how your child handles other responsibilities. Chances are that same behavior applies to texting, too. 
  • Temperament: If your child engages in risky behavior offline, they’re more likely to do the same in digital spaces. You know your child. Trust your instincts on how much monitoring they need. 

What if my child reacts negatively to text message monitoring?

Your child might not like the idea of text message monitoring, and you should prepare yourself for that possibility. Here are some talking points to help you navigate the conversation: 

  • “I respect your privacy, but I also need to make sure you’re safe.”
  • “My job is to help you learn how to use a phone safely and responsibly. Looking at your phone is one way I do that.”
  • “These are the situations in which I may need to look at your messages.” 
  • “Let’s talk about what I’m looking for, what I expect from you, and how we can handle it together if I find something concerning.”

Pro tip: You can use a digital device contract to lay out the terms of how you’ll monitor your child’s texts, plus consequences for breaking those rules and expectations.

What do I do if I find something inappropriate on my child’s phone?

If you come across something inappropriate on your child’s phone, here are steps you can take to address it: 

  • Stay calm: Freaking out is an almost guaranteed way to shut down your chances at a productive conversation. Approach your child in a non-judgemental manner. That may mean you need to take some time between finding the upsetting content and talking to them. 
  • Listen: Try to avoid jumping to conclusions before you’ve had a chance to talk to your child. The more open-minded you can be going into your conversation, the more you can be a supportive force for helping them right the course. 
  • Examine your limits: It may be time to set new expectations for your child’s phone use, or it may be a matter of reiterating existing boundaries and asking your child to recommit to them.
  • Know when to get help: If what you found on your child’s phone involves self-harm, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, or anything else that raises major alarm bells for you, consider enlisting the help of a professional. 

In short

It’s important that parents take an active role in their child’s digital life. Depending on the child’s age, that includes text message monitoring. In order to respect your child’s privacy, it’s important to be transparent and set clear expectations every step of the way. Ready to get started with text message monitoring? With BrightCanary, parents can supervise their child’s texts on Apple devices. Start your free trial today.

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