Confession: I Read My Teens’ Text Messages

Parenting teens in today’s social media age is hard. My stepsons are only 12 and 15, but they’ve already seen their fair share of teenaged scandal. One of them had a classmate – a girl he had known since kindergarten – who was forced to relocate to another school after she texted a fellow student an inappropriate photo. Another classmate was expelled for threatening to shoot up the middle school (don’t worry, my stepsons live out of state so this didn’t happen anywhere local). For these, and many other reasons, our family has some pretty serious rules when it comes to cell phones, the Internet, and especially social media.

Our main rule is that we have the right to see whatever is on our boys’ cell phones, at any time, with no advanced notice. And having this “hand me your phone right now” policy has resulted in us finding some things we wish we hadn’t seen. We’ve discovered one stepson had secretly installed SnapChat, an app that we had forbidden because it allows kids to send photos that automatically delete in 10 seconds. We just feel this app makes it too easy to send, or unwillingly receive, inappropriate content. We’ve also seen 2am texts to and from girls complete with the “l” word being thrown around waaaay too casually for our comfort.

Our second rule is that the boys can’t have a social media account unless they friend us. And by following our boys on social media, and also checking out their friends’ profiles and posts, we’ve realized just how many young kids these days are posting questionable stuff online. Teens just don’t seem to understand that even if your social media profile is set to “private,” once you post something online it never really goes away.

Even though our teens live out of state, we try to be as involved as possible. And that desire to be so involved with them and their digital lives led my husband and I to discover an app that has provided a lot of accountability for our family. It’s proven to be a such a helpful tool for our family. My Mobile Watchdog is an app that you install on both your kid’s phone and your phone. The kid version of the app basically locks down the phone so that you, the parent, can determine when and how the phone can be used. The parent version of the app acts as an online dashboard from which you can remotely control your kid’s phone. It’s a $50 a year subscription, but for us, the app has been well worth the price.

The first feature that we use is time limits. As I alluded to before, our boys would text nonstop, all.night.long, but with the app, we have their phones programmed to shut off at 10pm (though their phone will still dial 911 and all of their parents’ phone numbers after hours). We’ve also configured their phones so that while they can download and install any app they want, new apps can’t be used unless we approve of them first. We chose this option mainly due to SnapChat having been installed before, even though we had told the boys they couldn’t have it.

The next set of features that we use are the ones where some people might think we’re being a little too overprotective. We read all of our kids’ incoming and outgoing texts, including pictures and videos. While I don’t pride myself for snooping on my stepsons’ conversations, this feature has proven very helpful for us. One of the boys had a particularly aggressive girlfriend who texted him some pretty overt content. My stepson never replied or commented to those specific texts (which, let me tell you, made me one proud stepmom). But seeing those texts led us to having a good conversation with him about girls, sex and why some girls (or boys for that matter) will say certain things to get attention.

While I understand that some people may think we’ve taken monitoring their digital lives to the extreme, using this app has been the right decision for our family. But I’m curious to hear what you think. If you have teens or preteens, how are you keeping tabs on their texts and social media usage?

Karen is a California native who moved to Baton Rouge about three years ago for her husband's job. She loves Louisiana and the only thing she misses about living out west is In-N-Out burgers. Karen has two toddler boys and two teenaged stepsons. Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, Karen was a Senior Communications Manager for a software company. She earned her Bachelors degree from (don't hold it against her) the University of Southern California, where she graduated Cum Laude. In addition to spending time with her family, Karen enjoys writing, pretending she's good at making crafts and running.

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