Internet Search History Detective: Uncovering the What, Where and Who

Internet Search History Detective: Uncovering the What, Where and Who

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You discover someone has searched something inappropriate on one of the devices in your house. This is an all too common scenario that plays out in households across the country. On the surface, this seems like Parenting 101, right? Find the culprit and implement an appropriate level of discipline. Unfortunately, it is seldom that simple. The “who did it” and “what did they search” makes this a much more complex issue to address.  

Put on your detective hat! We’re going to take the classic board game “Clue” approach to help you determine precisely what happened and how you can address it. You need to figure out three main items with Clue: who, where, and what. Let’s start with the What.

The What

Take a breath. You may be overreacting. What you saw in the search history may be a perfectly innocent query, depending on what exactly was searched. The “what” is the easiest of the three main pieces you need to determine. The first thing you should do is take a picture or screenshot of what term or terms were searched and when this occurred. Screen captures of the original issue will ensure you don’t accidentally erase the evidence as you investigate the issue. Be sure to scroll through the history a bit to see if this was a one-time search or something more pervasive.  

Once that is complete, use Google to search the exact same phrase for yourself. Review the links that appear in the search results. Make sure to click “Images” at the top under the search bar to see the term’s pictures. It is essential to know what links and images your child may have been exposed to. Knowing what they may have viewed will be important when you discuss what happened with them. You will get the most accurate results by doing this from the same device that you initially discovered the questionable search. You can use your smartphone if that is not an easily accessible option. The collection of search results is your “what.” 

The Where (and When)

The date and time from the screenshot in step 1 should help you narrow down when this has been happening. The information in the screenshot indicates precisely when the search occurred. You will need to think about what was going on in your home when this was taking place. Was this a typical Tuesday evening with just your immediate family, or was this a Saturday afternoon when you had a houseful of people? The where and when are critical to figuring out the last piece of the puzzle: the who.

The Who

You have determined what was searched, how often it was searched, and when these searches occurred. Learning who did the searching can be the trickiest part. You assume that a family member is at fault. You probably already have a certain someone in mind. Don’t jump the gun, though. Remember your where and when detective work.

If the search occurred on a shared device like an iPad, outside individuals could be involved. I’ve spoken with several parents who discovered it was a friend over for a play date or an older relative who made a poor choice. In some cases, this will be a slamdunk, and you will have no doubt about who you need to speak with. In others, though, the waters can be a bit muddy. The best advice I can give is to be thoughtful during this process. Don’t jump to conclusions.  

Honest Conversations

Congratulations detective! It was Col. Mustard in the kitchen with the lead pipe. Well, sort of. It was your middle child searching “naked girls” on a Kindle during a sleepover with his friends. 

The best thing to do is to choose a time to have a conversation with your child about what you found. Find the time when you can sit with them in a quiet place without anyone else around. I believe it is less embarrassing for everyone if one parent handles the conversation, but that decision is entirely up to you. The discussion should be an honest one. It can go a million different directions based on their age and maturity. Explain what you found and that you want to be sure they understand what they saw. Ask them why they were searching for those terms. There may be a logical, acceptable reason that you are not aware of. 

Remember, children are curious. It is in their nature and there is nothing wrong with that. How many of you remember looking up explicit words in the dictionary long before the invention of the internet? Kids often are searching for things they heard in a song, read in the chat of a video game, or saw in a meme on social media. Your goal for the discussion should be to answer any questions they may have and encourage them to come to you first. It will probably be uncomfortable for both of you. There is a ton of information online about how to have “the talk” or similar talks. You may want to consult a few of those before the conversation, as well.   

We focused on a child who searched for sexually explicit content in this example. Obviously, there are other search terms that can be concerning. Parents should approach the situation the same regardless of what was searched. Have an honest conversation with your child. Let the conversation guide your next steps. If you are not sure how to approach a particular subject (suicidal ideation, for example), do some internet research prior to discussing it with your child.  

Stay Vigilant

Like all great detectives, your work is never done. It is crucial to monitor their digital footprints on a regular basis. Check their history more often. You can do this by press control+H in most browsers. If you are not sure, you can Google search “browser history” with the device’s name, like “browser history iPhone.” Children who have been caught looking up inappropriate content tend to learn from their mistakes. Some kids will seek parental advice, while others will learn the art of clearing web browsing history to cover their tracks.  

There are solutions you can investigate that can monitor internet traffic in your home for unwanted content. Qustodio, Circle by Disney, OpenDNS, and Eero all offer various options that parents can use to limit the Internet content available on children’s devices. Be cautious when filtering the internet, though. I do not always think this is the best approach. I believe it is better to teach kids how to behave than to attempt to block out all the bad stuff. Regardless of how you approach this, we’re all in the same boat as parents — we are trying to do the best things for our kids.  


Mike Daugherty is a husband, father of three young children, author, speaker, Google Innovator, and possible Starbucks addict. He is a certified educational technology leader who has served in a variety of roles through his 18-year career in public education. Currently, Mike is the director of technology for the Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School district in Northeast Ohio. His blog, More Than A Tech, offers advice and ideas for parenting in a digital world.

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