Should you look at your kid’s smartphone?  Digital parenting tips continue

(This is the second in a series of practical tips about parenting in the digital age.)

There’s an important distinction between privacy and dignity when it comes to your kid’s smartphone, and it’s the parent’s job to articulate this. Chief Strategy Officer Brad Berens explains in a new column.

By Brad Berens

My last column described conversations that parents should have before giving a kid that first smartphone. I held back talking about one important topic because it needs its own discussion: should you look at your kid’s phone?

The short answer is of course you should.

The longer answer starts with why and then moves to how.

Why: You should look at your kid’s phone because adolescents are not, in the general scheme of things, blessed with abundant executive function. Their brains don’t finish developing until they’re 25, so good judgment isn’t something you should expect.

Smartphones offer infinite temptations to do and say and photograph and look at and listen to things that can spiral out of control more quickly than you can imagine.

Here are some examples of common but bad smartphone behavior:

  • If you have a teenaged daughter, then she’s probably receiving “dick pics” on a daily basis.
  • She is also probably receiving requests for nude pictures of herself.
  • If you have a teenaged son, then he might be sending dick picks.
  • Or asking girls for nude pictures.
  • Other teens may be cyberbullying your kid.
  • Your little angel might be cyberbullying another kid or kids.
  • Outside of dick picks and cyberbullying, your kid may be posting things that she or he will regret either immediately or later in life.

This is the short list, but I don’t want to provoke “darling, where’s the whiskey?” levels of parental anxiety.

Please notice, however, that the examples I list above deal with teen behavior to other teens. Yes, there are pedophiles and cults and drug dealers and pornographers out there trying to take advantage of your kids, but those things are unlikely compared to the virtual certainty of the thoughtless things teens do to their peers.

You still need to explain to your kid that the stranger on the other end of the phone who seems like a delightful new teen friend might be a creepy adult predator, which is why your kid should only ever meet somebody new in a public place and preferably with an adult handy.

News flash: kids are sneaky

The reason you have to pick up your kid’s phone and look at it is that teens are often at least dimly aware that they’re doing things the adults in their lives would frown upon. So, they hide that behavior. Be on the lookout for code words like POS (Parents over Shoulder), and if you don’t understand a phrase or acronym, Google it.

It isn’t enough to look at your kid’s Instagram account from your own Instagram account because kids often have multiple Instagram accounts. Listen carefully and you might hear your teen or another refer to a “Sinsta,” which stands for “Secret Instagram.” That’s the private account where the mischief happens, also known as a “Finsta” or “Fake Instagram.”

Snapchat is a parent’s nightmare in two ways: first, messages disappear after they’re seen, which encourages drive-by nastiness because teens have the illusion that there’s no trail to follow; second, that’s just an illusion. The person receiving a message can either save or screen-capture it from Snapchat, so the “private” thing that one teen shared with another can quickly “go viral” in an way that courts humiliation.


You should look at your kid’s phone because adolescents are not blessed with abundant executive function. Smartphones offer infinite temptations to do and say and photograph and look at and listen to things that can spiral out of control more quickly than you can imagine.


You also have to look at your teen’s phone because that’s the only way you’ll believe that your kid is involved in something bad. Parents are loyal creatures who rarely believe that their kids have done something wrong unless they see the evidence with their own eyes.

How: the privacy/dignity distinction

Before you give your kid that first smartphone, it’s important to explain the difference between privacy and dignity.

As a minor living in your home and for whom you have legal responsibility, your kid has no right to privacy. Even if he or she is paying for the phone out of money from a part time job, you still need to look at it. That’s part of your job as a parent.

But your kid does have a right to dignity. If your daughter does not want you to like or comment on things she posts, then respect that wish even if you think something she shared online is adorable or brilliant. If your son does not want you to post pictures of him on your social media without asking first, then don’t… even though you desperately want to share something cute with your friends.

Your teens will find you embarrassing no matter what you do — even if you’re just standing there. There’s no such thing as a cool dad or mom. But you can limit their embarrassment by understanding that in your kid’s digital world there is usually no place for you.

If you keep this in mind, then when your kid actually does share something cool that happened, or that she or he found online, you’ll recognize that moment of sharing as a precious gift.

What to do when something bad happens… or what not to do

When your kid does something thoughtless, stupid, or risky with a smartphone, then a big parental challenge is in front of you. Do your best not to freak out.

Also, don’t make taking the phone away your first step. All that does is turn the phone into the rope in a game of tug-of-war between you and your kid: you won’t have a productive conversation. And that’s your goal.

You’ll be in better shape if you can find a neutral way to ask your teen to explain what something means or what happened or what he was trying to achieve when you find evidence of something moronic on his smartphone. (I struggle to resist sarcasm at these moments, and I often fail in that struggle and then feel bad later.)

Most importantly, for those of us who came of age before the smartphone took off (roughly in 2007 with the first iPhone), we understand intellectually but do not feel the extent to which the smartphone is the communications medium for teens today.

When you take your kid’s phone away, you’re not just punishing her: you’re isolating her from her friends… precisely the people she needs to talk with in order to complain about what a terrible parent you are!

If you want to see a dim, confused look on an adolescent’s face, then suggest at this moment that she can just go use the landline — if you even have one in the house. She won’t know her friends’ numbers, and she probably communicates with them via Snapchat or Instagram anyway. She wouldn’t want to use the school directory to call a friend’s home because her friend wouldn’t answer — and even worse than talking to her own parents is having to talk to somebody else’s parents.

When you’re ready to yell at your kid try to remember: parenting teenagers is hard, but being a teenager is harder.


Brad Berens is the father of two teenagers.  He is also the Center’s Chief Strategy Officer, and principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting.



See all columns from the Center.

October 23, 2019