It seems like an undisputed matter of fact. The average parent would confidently proclaim that they exercise nothing but total respect for their children’s privacy and free choice. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Harris Poll found that 43 percent of parents in the U.S. are snooping on their kids’ phones. Over a third are doing it without their kid’s knowledge. The data is consistent with social assumptions about age and gender as well. Parents are more likely to snoop on their younger children, and far more likely to get involved in the personal lives of girls rather than boys.
The vast majority of these parents are sure that they are doing nothing wrong. Checking their kid’s text messages, internet searches and social media posts are all in the noble pursuit of keeping them safe. 60 percent of the respondents didn’t think their child even had a right to hide such activities from their parents.
But this issue isn’t contained to pre-adolescent children. At least with them, parents have a marginally compelling argument to make for regulating their lives. Abuse of privacy occurs well throughout a teenager’s years as well. It may even increase as some parents react to the teen’s natural exploration of relationships and sexuality by snooping even more. This spirals into deeply unsettling parental attitudes where they believe they have a right to adjudicate their teen’s relationships and intervene vindictively when a relationship ends. Think of those weird “if you hurt my daughter I swear to God I will…” posts from over-reactive fathers who infantilize their daughters.
It is clear that parents are infringing on the privacy rights of children, especially teens. Given that most parents claim to be doing this for safety, what is the problem? Flatly stated, denying privacy to kids can break down trust and deprive them of some important developmental milestones. Valuable life skills can be learned from making mistakes and dealing with the consequences independently. We can reasonably expect the youth to make the wrong decisions at times. But as long as it isn’t life-threatening, they should be free to mess up.
So how do parents predict the seriousness of any given mistake? Communication is useful, of course. The goal here would be to equip the kid with knowledge that would help them rank decisions on seriousness and choose a course of action. It would also help them identify dilemmas that they should voluntarily seek guidance on. The goal is not to make the decision for them, and certainly not to exaggerate things that are actually trivial. This is particularly evident in teen relationships. Parents should discard any notion that dictated abstinence is still worth anything in the modern world. Rather, equipping the teen with an understanding of safe sex and healthy relationships is a better way to achieve safety while still respecting their rights.
Affording young people the right to make their own decisions is important for developing their awareness of accountability. When responding to their teen’s bad behavior, parents feel the temptation to blame something else. Social media often takes the fall in this regard, as it provides a forum for teens to make inappropriate posts or be exposed to disturbing content. By blaming the internet, parents are absolving their children from taking full responsibility for their decisions. Allowing teens to control their online presence themselves subjects them to self-accountability. They learn to abide by rules they set themselves, rather than rules set by snooping parents.
Finally, respecting privacy builds a culture of trust between child and parent. Coming off as punitive and judgemental about what minor decisions a teen makes is detrimental to that effort. Research at Harvard has shown that teens are already carefully curating their online presence, contrary to the parental belief that teens are careless online. Without trust, teens are more likely to use their superior knowledge of online privacy settings to evade parental scrutiny. With trust, teens can be free to develop their changing identities and seek parent advice on topics already visible to the parent. If parents start recognizing that children are individuals with equal rights, then it builds more trustworthy, safe and constructive young citizens.