Should I read my 14-year-old’s text messages?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Send him a media-related parenting question via cmch@childrens.harvard.edu and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Q: Should I read my 14 year old daughter’s text messages?  I want to make sure she is safe and that she isn’t using her phone late at night.  She feels that I check her texts because I don’t trust her, but I feel that as a parent (who also pays for the phone), it is my job to make sure she is safe.

-Troubled about texting, Denver, CO

A: Your question is an important one and highlights issues that many parents deal with when it comes to being aware of a child’s activities. Make it clear to your daughter that you do trust her to do the best she can in any situation, and that you are showing that trust by providing her with a cell phone.

It is important for you, as her parent, to help guide and teach your daughter to use this powerful technology effectively on her own and in ways that promote her becoming the kind of person that she wants to become. Just as you will sit in the front seat with her as she learns to drive, your awareness of her digital activities is your way of guiding and supporting her as she learns to use this powerful tool effectively, safely, and respectfully. As her parent, you have a wealth of experience that you can share, not to restrict, but to help her learn from mistakes made by you or others rather than making them herself.

Be completely honest and transparent that you will be overseeing your daughter’s digital life, just as you do the rest of her life, offering independence and privacy as it is earned by her growing ability to be responsible. Letting your daughter know that you will be checking her text messages regularly at the beginning will help her develop a habit of responsible texting, both in terms of content and timing. Make sure that any observations you make of her digital activities are respectful of her, show your motivation to care for her, and are supportive rather than punitive. Most importantly, let her know you are a resource for her, not a spy, and that the door is always open for her to come to you with concerns or confusion about this (or any other issue that she faces).

Texting is part of the complex waters that today’s adolescents are navigating, and you are there to parent her through them as much as she needs and will allow you. Because your daughter’s natural and healthy adolescent development is driving her to establish her own identity and independence, check in on her less frequently as she demonstrates increased responsibility, safety, and respectfulness in her online interactions. And make sure that she knows that you will be there for her, should she need you to observe, respond to, and help her with her interactions, regardless of whether they are IRL (in real life) or online.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®