When Kids Lie About Online Activities

Step One: Don't Panic

“I wasn’t surprised that my kid looked at inappropriate content online. I know it comes with the territory,” a parent recently confided. “What upset me more is that he lied about it.” 

“This is always so tricky,” I sympathized. “We only see a little snapshot of what is going on. And it can be hard to talk about – for all of us!”

She nodded, clearly still upset about how this had played out. “I periodically glance at the browsing history on his phone as we agreed on in advance. Last week I noticed a few concerning links. No one else had access to his phone that day so it’s clear he had spent time on those sites,” she explained.

“I was concerned but not shocked or upset!” she reiterated. “But then I asked him if there was anything he wanted to tell me about his online activities. He said no and denied looking at the sites. The lying felt way worse than the content he had encountered.”

Why Kids and Teens Lie

Kids benefit when parents are clued into what they see and do online. Parental controls and monitoring software are one way to do this. Other strategies include frequent conversations or reviewing search histories or screen time reports. 

These strategies work best when we use them as a complement to ongoing conversations and skillbuilding. If we approach parental controls as a way to covertly spy on our kids or catch them sneaking around in digital space, things don’t usually end well. Setting up “gotcha” moments tends to shut down essential communication or send our kids to more remote corners of the internet.

That said, just because parents and kids talk ahead of time about expectations doesn’t mean conversations about online activities will always go smoothly. As this parent noted, we are likely to encounter content or interactions that are concerning, surprising, or unsettling. When we do, it is tempting to approach our kids with our concerns and impromptu tests of trust and integrity. When our kids “fail” these tests, our worry skyrockets. We go quickly from, “My kid is lying about seeing this website… what else are they lying about? Am I raising a liar?”

Given this impulse, let’s slow down and remember some of the many reasons kids may lie:

  • To avoid punishment
  • To please others
  • To avoid embarrassment
  • To maintain independence
  • To manage anxiety
  • To protect their privacy
  • To protect someone else

Putting ourselves in our kids’ shoes, there are all kinds of reasons that lying might seem preferable to an honest conversation. For example, saying “Nope, I didn’t see that” is decidedly less uncomfortable than admitting to searching for information about sex online and landing on a porn site. Lying is one tool that kids experiment with as they navigate the anxiety associated with challenge or conflict.

It can be surprising to parents when “rule followers” lie. Yet a child with a perfectionist streak might lie to maintain their identity as a “good kid.” That’s not to say we should ignore dishonesty, but keeping lying in perspective is important. 

Responding to Lying

When our kids lie about online activities, it’s tempting to double down on control and monitoring. After all, our thinking goes, if our kids won’t tell us where they are going we will watch them to see where they go. Of course, some situations might warrant increased monitoring. For example, patterns of risky behaviors or safety concerns might necessitate creating agreements that involve more oversight. However, significantly ramping up surveillance without sufficient cause can quickly escalate conflict with teens in particular. It is at odds with young people’s developmental needs for autonomy and independence. This helps explain why some young people lie in an attempt to avoid adult control. 

We can skip the shaming and harsh consequences as well. These strategies don’t feel good to anyone. They also do little to dissuade kids from using the “lying to avoid punishment” strategy in the future. It’s not easy, but doing our best to stay calm, positive, and focused on skill-building can help us avoid unnecessary escalation.

So what can we try instead?

Skip the labels.

Don’t worry about whether your child is turning into a “liar.” These labels rarely fit. Take it one incident at a time.

Make room for mistakes and recognize honesty.

Remind your child that you love them and are there for support and problem-solving when they make mistakes – which they will. Give positive affirmations for honesty. For example, “I am so proud that you talked to me about this even though it was hard. That’s not always easy. But now we can figure this out together.”

Avoid setting kids up or “catching them” in a lie.

For example, if we know that our kid’s search history includes sites they agreed not to visit, resist the urge to “test” their honesty. Instead, be direct and start with what you know. “With your new phone, we agreed that I would periodically check your search history. I saw this _____. You aren’t in trouble. And I am concerned about some of the content on this site. What else do I need to know about what I saw? What am I missing?”

Avoid a power struggle.

Going back and forth tends to escalate conflict. If your child responds, “I didn’t do it!” resist the urge to say “Yes you did!” over and over again. Unless there is a concerning pattern of lying or deception, focus on the content over the lying. In other words, don’t get stuck trying to “prove” a lie.

Take a break.

Sometimes kids lie when they feel backed into a corner. Taking a break allows everyone to start fresh. “Let’s take a little break and revisit this after we’ve both had something to eat.”

Return to your agreements.

If kids transgress an agreed-upon boundary, follow through with a reasonable consequence. Having consistent and reasonable boundaries encourages honesty. For example, if a teen lies about bringing their phone into their room overnight when the media agreement is to charge it in the kitchen, a reasonable consequence may be to “turn it in” to a parent at night for a limited time. 

Don’t ignore persistent patterns.

Patterns of lying and deception related to tech use may indicate problematic use. We also don’t want to ignore consistent lying related to risky behaviors. Rather than escalating consequences, reaching out to a primary care provider or mental health provider can help us get a better handle on the bigger picture.

Pay attention to motivations.

Sometimes kids lie because they just want to test a boundary. Other times, they lie because they aren’t sure how to handle the concern underneath the lie. Understanding this can help us meet a need. For example, “I want to be sure that you have accurate information about sex and sexuality. Here are some sites and books you can look at when you want to.” Or, “I understand the impulse to take your phone into your room overnight because you wanted to be there for your friend. You are in a really tough spot. Let’s talk about ways to be a good friend and take care of yourself.”

We can also normalize the feelings that are sometimes underneath lying. For example, “Sometimes people lie if they feel worried or ashamed about something. Remember, there is nothing you could do that would make me love you any less.”