How to Handle Finding Disturbing Content on Your Teen's Phone

It is not uncommon for parents to monitor their teens' digital worlds. In fact, parents routinely keep tabs on their kids according to a Pew Research Center survey of adults with teens ages 13 to 17 years old. According to one survey, researchers learned that up to 61 percent of parents checked the websites that their teenagers visited. Other parents looked through phone calls and messages, while some tracked their teens via their cellphone.

After all, most parents feel that it is their job to make sure their teen is behaving appropriately online. The key is to monitor your teen's digital devices without being intrusive or spying. Ideally, you will establish your rules regarding monitoring ahead of time explaining that it is for their safety and protection. Just remember that many kids equate their text messages and other interactions with that of personal diaries, so you need to be sure you do not overdo it.

Generally speaking, making spot checks here and there is the best approach. But in the end, you know your teen better than anyone else. If you sense that something is going on or if something just does not seem right, you may need to spot-check their devices more frequently. What you are sensing may be as simple as a disagreement among friends, or it could be something more serious like sexting, cyberbullying, or even pornography.

What to Do When You Find Something Disturbing

Managing disturbing content on teen's phone
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

What happens when you find something disturbing or inappropriate? Here's how to address the situation without overreacting.

Stay Calm

If you find something troubling on your teen’s smartphone or tablet, start by approaching them in a nonjudgmental way. Ask about it and then listen to their answer.

Remember, your teen might be troubled by what you found just as much as you are, and they may even feel relieved when you find it.

Even though it may be difficult for them to talk about the situation, especially if it involves cyberbullying or sexting, they also may be thankful that they can get your advice without having to approach you first. 

Avoid Making Assumptions

Although it is important to have an open and direct conversation about what you find, you also do not want to make assumptions about your teen’s motivations. You should avoid bringing up past mistakes or other negative behaviors.

Stick to the issue at hand and attempt to understand the pressures and social issues involved in your teen’s choices. If you do not understand something, be sure to ask for clarification, but do not assume you know what they were thinking or feeling. Instead, ask for answers to those questions.

Set Limits

Once you understand what happened, it is still appropriate to set limits on your teen’s access to their smartphone, social media, apps, or anything else involved in their poor decision-making. It also is appropriate to continue to monitor their activity.

You also may want to go over your online safety guidelines such as not friending strangers and maintaining appropriate privacy settings. And, a refresher on digital etiquette, digital dating abuse, and cyberbullying is not a bad idea either.

Allow Them Some Space

Keep in mind that your teen still needs to learn how to use the Internet and social media responsibly. Restricting access to social media, the Internet, or other apps for extended periods of time means that you are not allowing them the space to learn and one of two things will happen. Either they will then have to learn on their own without your help or supervision when they are out of the house, or they will find ways to sneak around and use social media without you knowing.

Either way, they are at a disadvantage without your help and support. Take advantage of the opportunities you have now to not only monitor their activity but also to guide them on how to use the tools available to them in a responsible way.

Preventative Measures

Ideally, you have established some basic rules and guidelines about appropriate online behavior before giving your teen a smartphone or tablet. But here are some general preventative measures you can put into place to help ward off the potential for something inappropriate happening with your teen's device.

Be Aware and Involved

Before any issues crop up with your teen, make sure you are familiar with their online world. Not only should you know what social media sites they are on, but you also should follow them.

Social media monitoring is an essential part of parenting in today's world.

You can even set up notifications so that you are alerted anytime your teen posts something. This way, if your teen posts something inappropriate, you can address it before it spreads too far by having them remove it.

Additionally, be sure you know what your teen is doing online. For instance, are they watching YouTube, visiting chat rooms, following a blog? Even if you find their activities boring, you need to pay attention and ask questions. After all, if your teen finds it interesting, then learning more about it will help you learn more about your teen in the end. 

Maintain an Open-Door Policy

It is always a good idea to establish an understanding that if there is something that bothers your teen, they can come to you with questions or concerns and you will not hold it against them. Teens learn best when they can interact openly and freely with their parents without fear of losing their technology or being treated harshly.

When parents can remain calm and talk to their teens about challenging subjects like sex, pornography, or cyberbullying they establish themselves as a trusted resource and source of support for their teens.

The key is to never overreact or make assumptions no matter what your teen brings up. 

A Word From Verywell

It can be very troubling to find something inappropriate on your teen's smartphone but do not let what you find overwhelm you or send you into a panic. There may be more to the situation than you realize.

Instead, focus on having a frank conversation and helping your child learn from their mistakes. Together, you can get through this situation and learn from it. In the end, if handled correctly, this situation can make your teen stronger and smarter about using digital devices more responsibly.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.