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

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

How to Monitor Your Teen Online

Naturally, most parents feel it is their job to make sure their teen is behaving appropriately online. The key is to check on your teen's digital devices without being intrusive or spying. Ideally, you will establish your rules regarding monitoring ahead of time while explaining that it is for their safety and protection. 

Just remember that many kids desire the same level of privacy for their text messages and other online interactions as they would for personal diaries, so you need to be sure you are not overly intrusive.

Generally speaking, making spot-checks here and there is the best approach. In the end, you know your teen better than anyone. If you sense that something is going on, or if something just does not seem right, you may need to 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.

Managing disturbing content on teen's phone
Verywell / JR Bee

What to Do When You Find Something Disturbing

What should you do when you find something disturbing or inappropriate on your child's phone? 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 just as troubled as you are by what you found. They may even be 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 may actually 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 don't want to make assumptions about your teen’s motivations. Avoid bringing up past mistakes or other negative behaviors.

Stick to the issue at hand and attempt to understand the pressures and social issues contributing to your teen’s choices. If there is something you don't understand, ask for clarification instead of assuming their thoughts or feelings.

Set Limits

Once you understand the situation, it may still be 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 is also appropriate to continue to monitor their activity.

You may want to go over your online safety guidelines such as not friending strangers and maintaining appropriate privacy settings. 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. Severely 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, or they will find ways to sneak around and use social media without your knowledge.

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—responsibly.

Preventative Measures

Ideally, you will have already established some basic rules and guidelines about appropriate online behavior before giving your teen a smartphone or tablet. There 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, and have them remove it.

Be sure you know what your teen is doing online. For instance, are they watching YouTube, visiting chat rooms, or 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. 

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 without fear of judgment. Teens learn best when they can interact openly and honestly with their parents without fear of losing their technology or being treated harshly. The key is to not overreact or make assumptions no matter what your teen brings up. 

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

A Word From Verywell

It can be very troubling to find something inappropriate on your teen's smartphone, but don't 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.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pew Research Center. Parents, teens and digital monitoring.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.