How to Monitor Kids’ Text Messages: What Works, What Doesn’t

Words by
Jake Cutler

MAR 14, 2023

How to Monitor Kids’ Text Messages: What Works, What Doesn’t

Technology is now completely enmeshed in the experience of growing-up. Large chunks of friendship, dating, school, and extracurricular activities rely on text and group chat. It’s so ingrained that the tech decisions confronting parents now have more to do with when and how, not if.

The responsibility to keep kids safe has probably never felt easy but, today, when nearly half of teenagers report having been victims of cyberbullying, it can feel especially overwhelming. And that’s not to mention other concerns like sexting or screen addiction—particularly with 95% of U.S. teens owning a cell phone today.

teen holding phone looking sad illustration

When it comes to messaging through a smart device, it’s hard to know the right amount of freedom to give a child. How do you give your kid the space they need and want while also giving them the safety they deserve? And give yourself the peace of mind you need?

This article discusses the importance of monitoring kids’ text messages and provides tips on how to do it effectively without infringing on their autonomy, or creating feelings of distrust.

Do: Foster Trust

Trust between a parent and child is such a critical part of online safety. It’s not just a guardrail, it’s the prerequisite to all other guardrails.

When it comes to monitoring kids’ text messages, do your best to strike that delicate balance between monitoring your child’s activity and fostering trust.

mom and son monitoring his device illustration

One way to foster this trust is to transform the monitoring experience from parent-led to child-led. Invite your child to go through their text messages with you. Allow them to give you context for their conversations. Listen to them as they open a window into their social life and share what’s happening in their world.

You may come across messages that concern you—and your child’s number one fear is that you’ll react poorly because they’ve disappointed or scared you. When you keep calm while still helping them to learn, change, and grow, your child will become more willing to talk to you in the future when the stakes are high.

Make it clear that you are monitoring text messages to keep your child safe, not out of distrust or a lack of faith in their abilities. Most kids don’t recognize the severity of all the dangers out there so communicating this can also help to turn messaging safety into a team effort, rather than it feeling like a me-vs-you endeavor.

Help them understand that you want to keep them safe because you love them.

By monitoring your kid’s text messages in an open and transparent way, you can help create an environment of mutual respect and understanding that will protect them from potential risks and strengthen the bond between you.

Do: Provide Increasing Autonomy

Allowing children to have some independence when navigating the world of messaging can help them develop a healthy sense of self-responsibility and build confidence in their own decision-making abilities. This can give them the skills needed to recognize potentially dangerous situations before they become too serious—skills that will be essential as they progress into adulthood.

Parents Meeting with Son

Every child is different, so you’ll need to tailor the amount of autonomy you provide depending on your child and their age. It helps to communicate this so your child can feel empowered as they gain more freedom.

Do: Educate Yourself on What’s Out There

It can feel impossible to keep up with all the internet trends, new apps, and teenage slang constantly popping up, but it’s important to get educated to protect your kids from dangers. Here are a few helpful resources that will help you ensure you’re up to speed on the biggest messaging dangers:

Do Not: Play “Gotcha”

Try to avoid monitoring text messages in a covert or intrusive way. For digital natives, a phone often feels like more than just a phone—it’s a digital diary. Taking their phone without their knowledge or by brute force will feel like a massive boundary violation.

mom confronting daughter about phone illustration

If your kid feels like you’re constantly looking to catch them doing something wrong then it will pretty quickly damage the trust between you and could lead to feelings of alienation or rejection.

Also, try to find ways to praise the things they’re doing right. Even if they roll their eyes, they likely appreciate it.

Digging through every message your child sends or receives is exhausting as a parent. Not only does it feel invasive to kids, but often leads them to find ways to hide what they don’t want you to see. Instead, start by monitoring the contacts they are communicating with and the media being shared.

If any red flags appear while monitoring those two categories then take the opportunity to discuss them with your child. This gives them the chance to share with you, rather than feeling like they’ve been “found out.” Of course, it is important to trust your instincts as a parent and if you suspect they are in danger and are hiding that then you should act accordingly.

“Severe depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, suspected bullying or predation are cases parents may need to check their child’s phones,” says Nancy Darling, parenting author and professor of psychology at Oberlin College. She counsels, “You can say, ‘This is your phone and I respect your privacy, and here are the times I may need to look.”

Do Not: Rely on Damage Control

The best approach to keeping kids safe is to shield them from dangers in the first place. Even with the best safeguards in place there is a chance that your child may be exposed to something harmful online, so damage control may be inevitable at some point. But it’s certainly not the best a parent can hope for. Protection should primarily be approached in terms of prevention.

father looking at kids tech illustration

The Best Tools for the Job

Fortunately there are quite a few tools available today to help parents keep their kids safe while messaging. That wasn’t the case even 4-5 years ago. That certainly says something about the risks of online communication but it’s also a promising sign that more parents are aware of the digital dangers their children are facing and are being proactive in protecting them.

Features vary from tool to tool and price and reliability do as well. The most important consideration, of course, is how good a text message monitoring approach is at protecting your child. The principles explained above can be a helpful guide for choosing the safest tool for your family:

  • Does the device or software enable a trusting relationship between you and your child?
  • Does it allow an appropriate amount of autonomy for your child?
  • Does it foster an invasive relationship where kids are likely to feel spied on?
  • Does it only flag inappropriate content after-the-fact, or does it prevent that from reaching your child in the first place?

It’s important to keep these things in mind when considering tools like kid-safe smartphones or monitoring software meant to help parents keep their children safe while interacting with others via messaging apps. If you’re weighing out the pros and cons of different options, consider a Gabb device with Gabb Messenger, our custom app built specifically for kids and teens to learn safe texting and video calling.

Do you monitor your child’s phone? What works for you? Let us know in the comments!


  • What Does IG mean? More Teen Slang on Mar 21, 2024 02:11 PM

    […] Text monitoring is a delicate facet of parenting in the digital world, so be sure that your conversations nurture safety and respect.  […]

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