The news reports about cyber bullying, sexting and other hijinks in cyberspace are alarming. You want your child to have access to the Internet for its educational value and have a mobile device so he can communicate with you easily or contact the authorities in case of an emergency, but providing those tools opens the door to a bunch of potential problems. You may think your child would never intentionally hurt another student using the texting capability on his phone, or post his address and schedule in a chat room, or take embarrassing photos of someone and post them on his Facebook page, but are you certain?
There is no simple answer to the question of whether you should read your child's text messages. It's a complicated issue with authorities weighing in on both sides of the argument. You may feel that your child should have a reasonable expectation of privacy as he matures and that your interference will send a negative message by showing him that you don't trust him. The flip side of that line of reasoning is that his safety and the safety and privacy of others trumps your child's right to conduct his social life without micro-management or big brother (mother or dad), watching.
Adjusting to the widespread availability of new technology has caused growing pains for many of us. You may be concerned about the security of your home network. You may be reluctant to enter your account password when online shopping using a public Wi-Fi network. At some time, you may even have written an uncensored work e-mail criticizing your boss that you now regret. The difference between your concerns and conduct and your child's conduct is that you have the emotional maturity necessary to make a reasoned choice -- whether you choose to act wisely or not.
There is something else you should take into account: For psychologists, the concept of maturity is a bit of a moving target. Even when it comes to issues like underage children committing capital crimes, expert opinion is mixed. In a study released by the American Psychological Association, Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychology professor at Temple University, found that an adolescent's ability to reason logically develops faster than his ability to resist peer influences and curb impulse control. Dr. Steinberg cautions that adolescents "may lack the social and emotional maturity to control impulses, resist peer pressure and fully appreciate the riskiness of dangerous decisions." From a parental perspective, that's a red flag suggesting that a good, smart kid can make bad, impulsive choices in certain circumstances. That isn't poor parenting or lack of discipline, that's biology.
In the end, deciding to monitor your child's text messages is a judgment call. You know your child better than anyone. If you do decide it's a good idea, there are some methods you can use, like phone based parental controls and text tracking software that will make the process a little less painful for both of you. But if you do decide to monitor what your child is doing on the phone, it's best to let them know what you're doing to avoid secrets between the two of you.