Melanie Barwick, "To Peek or Not to Peek: Privacy in the Time of Social Media," CBC News, June 29, 2009. Reproduced by permission.
Melanie Barwick is a registered psychologist and health systems scientist in the Community Health Systems Resource Group at the Hospital for Sick Children in Ontario, Canada.
If you are the parent of a preteen or older, you've stepped into the intersection of adolescence and social media. When I was a teen, I was lucky to have permission to use the phone. Alone time often depended on the number of siblings you had and the space available where you could be on your own. Being a teenager now means you likely have a cell phone, an e-mail account, and a presence on Facebook—at a minimum. Welcome to the land of the digital native—adolescent version.
Privacy in the Age of Social Media
It's not that our teenagers' need for privacy and autonomy from parents has changed in any way over the decades. Teenagers still pull away, spend more time alone in their rooms, and inflict the mood shifts that come with teen angst. What has changed is that there are now more places for them to enact their privacy needs. This also means that parents need to rethink the privacy boundaries given the new landscape.
Before the World Wide Web, and social media in particular, parents had to contend with an increase in bathroom time, in-the-bedroom-door-closed time, and the mysteries that come with adolescence. Private time existed on the telephone, hanging out in the basement, backyard, park or on the dock—anywhere away from parent view. With the advent of social media, personal space has grown and there are many more opportunities for parents to cross the privacy boundaries—depending on your perspective, of course.
Parenting gurus fall on both sides of the privacy debate. Some espouse a perspective I share, that is to respect kids' privacy. This means, knocking before entering, not going through their bags or knapsacks, not reading their e-mail—indeed, not even knowing their password, and not surreptitiously scanning their text messages when their cell phone is left unattended.
This is not to say I haven't been tempted or slipped up in my resolve to respect their privacy. Know this ... every breach comes with a price of some sort because you have to deal with anything you learn about your teen's private life without being able to address it with them unless, of course, you're willing to cop to the indiscretion.
I respect my kids' privacy because I think it's the right thing to do.
Mea culpa [my fault]—I have looked in my daughter's school agenda only to find the expected homework notes and slightly shocking graffiti written by her friends. Okay, no biggie here. Once, driven by my ignorance as a digital immigrant, I sent my daughter a friend request on Facebook: request denied! Despite the sting of rejection, it was obvious that this was not the "space" where we would interact and that was okay with me. Of course I worry that her Facebook page might get racier than I would like, but my strategy has been to ask one or two family friends and relatives who have been granted "friend" status to just keep a lookout for anything of concern.
The Right Thing to Do
In short, I respect my kids' privacy because I think it's the right thing to do, because I would like them to respect my privacy and that of others, and because I believe it promotes a trusting and loving relationship. If it's not okay for your teen to listen in on your phone conversations, read your e-mail, or rifle through your texts or handbag, then it's not okay to behave this way with them. Reading your teen's texts or IMs [instant messages] over their shoulder is the modern-day equivalent of listening in on a phone conversation. The only proviso here is that you can and should act if you suspect they are conversing with a stranger.
Not everyone shares this view. Some experts believe parents should have all access to e-mail passwords and Internet spaces, and that they should let their kids know their activity will be monitored. Some experts make a distinction on the basis of the child's age. For adolescents, studies have shown that children 14 and older think they should have freedom and privacy and parents should respect that, says Mikki Meadows, a professor in Eastern Illinois University's School of Family and Consumer Sciences. For younger children, however, parents should definitely check their e-mail and let the children know they're doing it, she added.
Regardless of where you stand, we all reserve the right to cross that privacy line if and when our teens have gone so far into the adolescent underground that we're no longer in touch with who they are or what they're up to. There may come a point when you may need to infringe on their privacy if you suspect they are at risk. Mitigating risk and harm is one reason why many professionals recommend that kids surf the Web in a family space rather than in their room alone. I occasionally check the Web history on the computer my kids use, just to see where they're surfing—it feels less intrusive than peering over their shoulder and I don't hide the fact that I do it. I've also found nothing of concern, unless you include all the shopping sites that cause me to worry that my income will increasingly end up in the coffers of Hollister and Urban Outfitters!
Keeping Tabs Without Violating Privacy
Parents should discuss what is and is not appropriate e-mail, text, IM, and Facebook behaviour. As a general rule, let them know that they should not do, say, or post anything in these "spaces" that would be considered inappropriate or risky in a face-to-face context. This includes bullying behaviour. Older teens should be told that many employers conduct Internet searches for online profiles of prospective employees, and will oftentimes make judgments about their trustworthiness and personality based on the content. Be warned: put anything out into cyberspace, including YouTube, and it's there forever.
What kids do in your home is your business, but many would agree that bedrooms and bathrooms are private spaces when in use. The computer they use may be yours, but their space on the Web is theirs. You may be paying for their cell phone and the landline, but their personal communications are private. It is a tricky landscape to master, and we can only hope to approach it as authentically as possible.
Keeping tabs on your teenager needn't be done on the sly. While it's not always easy to stay connected with them at this stage, there are things you can do that will at least sustain the connection you already have. Try to have breakfast or dinner together at least four times a week. While our hectic schedules make this event seem miraculous at times, there is consistent research that supports family meals as important in the development of strong parent-child relationships and family connectedness.
Crossing the privacy boundary may widen the communication chasm between you and your teen.
Like other forms of parental involvement, like playing sports together, family meals are linked to positive teen behaviour. Teens who regularly have meals with their family are less likely to get into fights, think about suicide, smoke, drink, use drugs, and are more likely to have later initiation of sexual activity, and better academic performance than teens who do not. And, more frequent family meals have been found to be associated with less substance use, fewer depressive symptoms, and less suicide involvement, and with better grades.
Respecting the Privacy Boundary
Crossing the privacy boundary may widen the communication chasm between you and your teen. Here are some suggestions on how to respect your teen's privacy.
- Unless you strongly suspect harmful, illegal, or risky behaviour, don't go through your teen's personal things. Recognizing their personal space will foster a relationship based on trust.
- Getting kids to open up about their personal life is hard, but be delicate. A good place to have sensitive conversations is in the car, alone together. Don't interrogate, regardless of how badly you want to know.
- Give them space, and recognize that public displays of affection are the bane of every teenager. Find other ways to communicate your love, affection, and interest, and do it in private where there is far less risk of embarrassing them.
- Set some rules about bedroom privacy, such as the expectation that you will knock before entering, what they may bring up to their room, and whether you will or will not clean the room—this has implications for what you will do if you find something you do not like in there!
- Consider making the bathroom the only room with a lock on it; locks on bedroom doors are typically not a good idea.
- Let them know you are available if and when they need to talk to you. While it may be difficult to wait for them to come to you with something, if they know you are available, they will be more likely to come to you and share their world.
The caveat to these guidelines is that all teens need to know that while privacy is a right, trust is earned. All parents have a right to know where their teen is when they leave the house so that they can work to ensure their safety.
How you will respect your teen's privacy is something all parents need to think through, and it won't always be easy. The road will be smoother if you work to maintain good communication and a healthy relationship on a regular basis, and the reward will be a mature, respectful teen who uses good coping strategies to navigate their journey into adulthood.