Outsmarting Teen Smartphone Use

As a parent, you’ve probably heard it all: “stay out of my business,” “that’s not fair,” “it’s my phone (or computer or tablet…) you can’t look at it,” “you don’t trust me?” 

But here’s the truth: you shouldn't stay out of your teen’s business, sometimes life is not fair, you may or may not fully trust your teen (you definitely don’t trust the people they encounter on the internet), and that phone/tablet/computer? It belongs to YOU, the parent, and you are very kind to let your child use one!

But along with that kindness comes risks. Read on for some tips to help keep your teenager safe when it comes to internet and smartphone use:

Parents and/or guardians should have all usernames and passwords to all devices (phones, computers, tablets, etc.), and to all email and social media accounts. Yes, this will be difficult and may feel daunting as there are new apps and social media options popping up every day.

What if my kid changes the passwords?? Of course, this will happen - remember, they are teenagers and they will test the limits. React calmly and attach appropriate outcomes to these actions. For example, you might try taking away the devices for a period of time. When you give them back, make sure you have all of up-to-date usernames and passwords.

Now that you have the logins, USE THEM! You can do this with your teen or in private, but check up. You may find that your teen is less likely to engage in internet use that you don’t approve of when you have usernames and passwords.

Keep the lines of communication open! Check in with your teen daily. Ask about school, friends, and what‘s up with that phone that seems to be permanently buzzing. Keeping the conversation going may help your teenagers feel more comfortable coming to you if they need help or to ask you questions. And don’t be afraid to also ask the tough questions, and be open to hearing their answers.

Talk with your teen about your concerns regarding talking to or meeting people that they don’t know on the internet. Online, people aren’t always who they say they are. Teach the laws and rules when it comes to communication. For example, did you know that children can be charged with the distribution of child pornography if they send nude pictures of themselves? Help them to be aware of and understand the consequences of their actions. Here are some ways to make the conversation easier:

    • Start young! Address issues as soon as you give your children the opportunity to have a phone or electronic device the links to the internet. If you didn’t do this already, it’s not too late…start now!
    • Set rules and limits. These can include (but definitely don’t need to be limited to) the amount of screen time allowed, what time the phone gets turned off or turned in each night, and sites or apps allowed.
    • Consider getting it in writing. Try creating a contract with your child before giving them the device. That way, expectations are set, and consequences are known if the rules you establish are not followed. Here are a few examples to get you started: Teen Cell Phone Contract from Josh Shipp, a Family Contract for Cell Phone Use from Connect Safely, and a Cell Phone Contract from iMom.

Remember that not every strategy will be effective with every teen. It will take some trial and error to determine what works best for you and your family. Parents, you CAN do this! Yes, it will be difficult at times, especially when your child tries to push the limits and thinks they know better than you. Hold strong; consistency is key.

What strategies have worked for you and your teen? Tell us in the comments! 


Samantha Steinberg, LCSW-C, has been employed at Sheppard Pratt since 2011, and interned at Sheppard Pratt while in graduate school. Sam obtained her Masters from the University of Maryland School of Social Work. She went to West Virginia University (Let’s Go Mountaineers!!) and earned a BA in Psychology. Sam’s passion is working with children, adolescents, and families.