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What to Do If You Find Something Disturbing on Your Teen's Phone

I often hear parents struggling with issues concerning their children using technology safely and appropriately. A parent might notice, for example, that their teenager spends a lot of time texting, or frequently insulting others or cursing. Another parent might discover pictures on their teen’s phone or social media of them in their underwear, flashing private parts, or in suggestive poses. Or a parent who shares a tablet with their teen notices that internet history includes searches related to sex or pornographic websites.

Countless parents encounter issues with their children's behavior on their devices and struggle with knowing how to approach things. Many are looking for answers and advice on how to broach certain subjects with their kids, especially if they were snooping or want to make sure they have an appropriate punishment that doesn't create more defiance or space between them. 

It's important we teach teens how to navigate the challenges of technology, rather than reacting angrily or hoping we can completely shelter them from the digital world. Young people need to learn how to navigate the online world so they can reap the benefits and avoid or address the above scenarios on their own in the future. It’s good to have a helpful, understanding parent in their corner while they learn—not caregivers they are trying to outsmart. 

Here are some basic tips for parents to start with: 

1. Stay calm. Think about how you want to handle things and how to approach it with your child. If you learn of the inappropriate behavior take some time to process and strategize. If you catch your child in the act tell them you will discuss it later when you have thought more about it. 

2. Be mindful of your tone. Try your best to come from a place of concern versus disappointment or judgment. This will help discourage defiance and increase your child's understanding and openness to hearing what your concerns are about their behavior.

3.  Be a good listener. Try to understand the context of what happened and give your child a chance to explain. Maybe things aren't as bad as you imagined.  

4. Set limits and tell your kids what you expect from them. It's best to establish rules and limits before kids are given a device but if these were not discussed now is the time to do that. There are contracts on the web that can help give you ideas and get started. One of my favorite you can find here

5. Don't get sucked into an argument. Sometimes when kids are embarrassed or mad they can easily turn the tables on you. For example, they may focus on you snooping through their phone instead of addressing the issue you are having with what was on it. Tell them that you understand they may be mad and will give them a little time to calm down but we are going to talk about what I saw and what concerns me about it. 

6. Discuss and decide on appropriate consequences and expected future behavior. It helps to ask them what they think the consequences should be. That way if they break the rules again in the future they can't say the punishment isn't "fair" because they helped decide what it would be. This helps with compliance. I recommend using software and hardware to turn off and on devices easily so you can enforce the established rules easily without an argument.

Monitoring Phones, Computers, and Social Media

With the growing reach of the internet and our connected lives, monitoring and guiding this generation of kids has become increasingly difficult. No matter what your opinion is on parenting - from free-range to helicopter - some guidance is required to get kids on the right path while online.  Some parents actively monitor their child’s phone, computer, messaging apps, email, and internet browsing histories. Only you can decide what level of monitoring you and your child require. Monitoring and blocking have its place but the most important thing is that YOU guide them on how to best behave online. Without your guidance, it is like teaching children to drive by installing GPS in their car. It will help them get to their destination but won't teach them how to be a good citizen on the road. The Talk Institute offers both a live and online course to help parents and kids have a guided conversation together.

When kids are young they can innocently stumble on content that isn't age appropriate. It makes sense at this age to use tools to block certain sites and set limitations on the time they can be online. 

If you are concerned about the content of what they are sending, then it might be right for you to monitor their texts, their social networks, or track their location.

I believe your responsibility is to be upfront and clear. If you decide to do check-ins on your child make sure there are no secrets and it’s all up front before you start checking your child’s room, backpack, social media, and phone. It’s important that you keep your integrity as an honest person intact. You can say something like, “You’ve lost my trust and I’m going to start checking on you more often. I’m doing this because I love you, want you to be safe, and I’m just not going to let you do this in our home.”

Understand that teens have a developmental need for privacy. This separation is a natural part of human relationships, and as teens get older, the lines of separation begin to form and become clearer. Parents and kids often fight over where the boundaries are drawn, but your child’s need to separate is very important. That’s why I think it’s important that kids have privacy as they get older. However, I believe you can take the approach that your child needs to earn their right to privacy after they prove they know how to be good digital citizens and can use their devices appropriately. Once they prove this, parents should remove the monitoring software.  If they break a rule monitoring goes back on. 

Various tools have different functions. Each one differs slightly. Here are the options: 

Monitoring: Tools that watch your child's online activity. Some notify you the online content your child creates while others report to you on the calculated risks. 

Managing: Tools that allow parents to set limits on time online, time on certain sites or apps, or time using the device altogether. Online addiction is a serious problem and this can help parents mitigate this.

Blocking: Tolls that block websites or shield from adult content. You can set your own blacklist or use lists provided. 

Monitoring typically comes in two formats. Software that is installed on devices you want to monitor and hardware you install on your WiFi or home router. The most popular is software which can monitor phones, tablets, laptops, etc. The good thing is it goes with the device anywhere the user takes it but older kids that are tech savvy can find ways around many types of monitoring software. Hardware is location based. You can limit connection times for any or all devices. It is difficult to get around because it is secured at the internet connection rather than the device, however, when your child leaves the house with that device, it is no longer safeguarded. 

Some options for products are: 

Qustodio      Software      Manage, Block, and Monitor

Netsanity     Software      Manage and Block

Teensafe     Software      Monitor

Intego         Software       Manage, Block, and Monitor

Netnanny   Software       Manage, Block, and Monitor

uKnowKids  Software      Monitor

KidsWifi      Hardware     Manage and Block

Kindera      Hardware     Manage and Block

Circle          Hardware     Manage and Block

No matter what tools you decide you may want to use, be sure to sit down with your kids and talk to them about what they are using and how to be careful in the digital world. You can also read our blog on should you set parental controls on devices.   As always, feel free to comment below with questions or other suggestions. 


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