What to Do if You Find Something Alarming on Your Child's Phone

By Andrea Nelson
November 9, 2023
shocked mother looking at phone

You do your best to keep an eye on your child’s online activity by asking questions, periodically checking their device, or perhaps using a monitoring service. (Good job, you!) 

But do you know what to do when your child watches inappropriate things? What if you discover your child watched a sexually explicit video? Or that they’ve been viewing content promoting disordered eating or self-harm? 

A discovery like this can be a lot to process, but you don’t have to go it alone. In this article, we’ll discuss what to do when you find something alarming on your child’s phone.

What to do when your child watches inappropriate things

Here are some steps you can take when you find out that your child has watched something inappropriate on their phone: 

Stay calm

It’s likely you’ll have strong feelings when your child watches something inappropriate. You might be worried, shocked, or angry. You might even feel disbelief, guilt, or denial. 

While these feelings are totally normal, it’s not productive to bring them into your conversation with your child. So, before you do anything, take the time you need to regulate your own emotions so you can approach your child calmly and rationally. 

This could mean talking to a trusted confidant, or simply giving yourself a few days' space before you tackle the situation.

Use empathy

As strong as your feelings were when you discovered your child watched something inappropriate, they may also have intense emotions about what they’ve seen. 

The reaction will vary from child-to-child and can range anywhere from confusion, to curiosity, to shame, to fear. Remember they’re still learning and your job is to guide them through this with empathy and love. 

Let them have their emotions and reassure them that, whatever has happened, you’re there for them. 

Listening is key

Before you launch into problem-solving mode, take the time to ask your child what happened, using open-ended questions as much as you can. Your goal is to gather the facts so you can decide how to address it.

Here are some conversation-starters:

  • “How did you come across this?”
  • “Have you seen something like this before, or is this the first time?” 
  • “How did watching it make you feel?”  

Come up with a plan

Once you’ve established the facts, it’s time to figure out your next steps. You’ll want to tailor your response depending on the content that was viewed, if your child sought it out or stumbled upon it, and if someone else sent it to them. 

The most productive response is one that you work with your child to come up with. Ask them if they have any ideas for what to do before you offer your thoughts. 

Here are things you might include in your plan:

  • Discuss what they can do to be safer online and reduce the likelihood of something like this happening again. 
  • Make sure parental controls are in place to filter out inappropriate content. 
  • Reset your child’s algorithms to reduce the chances they’re shown concerning photos or videos.  
  • If you report the inappropriate content (to a social media platform, your internet service provider, or the authorities), involve your child in the process. This will help them feel more in control of what happened. 

Red flags  

When should you consult a professional? Nicole Baker, assistant professor of psychology at Franklin Pierce University, cautions that frequent exposure to harmful material is a serious concern. This includes sexually explicit or inappropriate messages, photos, videos, content that promotes violence, self-harm, harm to others, drug or alcohol use, and any improper sexual material. If your child is sending or receiving this content from peers or strangers, these are significant red flags.

“While it may be understandable that children come across some of this content in unmonitored environments,” Baker says, “it should be a cause for concern when children actively seek out these types of content online and frequently engage with it.”

Baker adds that it’s also a cause for concern if your child hides messages or uses secret apps to try and cover up their online behavior. 

When to involve the authorities

If your child was contacted by an online predator, or if the content they viewed involved nude, semi-nude, or sexually explicit videos or images of a child, document and report the material to the platform and law enforcement. You can also report the incident to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)’s Cyber Tip Line.

In short

The internet is full of all kinds of questionable content, and there’s a decent chance your child will run across some of it at one point or another. That’s why it’s important to prepare your child by talking to them about what to do if anyone — or anything — makes them feel uncomfortable online.

If you find something alarming on your child’s phone, there are steps you can take to minimize the harm and increase their safety going forward.

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