Privacy is the right of individuals to go about their daily lives without unwanted intrusion, interference, or observation by others. The concept of privacy includes the right to keep ideas and beliefs to oneself, preserve secrecy in communications, maintain boundaries of personal space, control one’s body and sexuality, and protect the confidentiality of personal information. Although the US Constitution does not explicitly guarantee citizens the right to privacy, it is considered a fundamental aspect of many other protected rights, including freedom of speech, religion, and association. The US Supreme Court has also established broad privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment, which grants Americans the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” by the government.
Minors under the age of eighteen do not possess all the same privacy rights as adults. Although children and teenagers enjoy some Fourth Amendment protections, they lack the legal capacity to take full, independent responsibility for their decisions. Parents, guardians, and certain other adults who interact with minors, such as teachers and health care providers, have some authority to infringe upon their privacy interests. As children reach adolescence and become more independent, the extent of their privacy rights becomes a subject of considerable debate. Teenagers’ increasing desire for privacy often conflicts with adult caregivers’ responsibility to ensure their safety and welfare.
Surveillance is the act of watching, monitoring, or recording the activities of an individual or group. Surveillance can violate the right to privacy. Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement officers must have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and obtain a warrant from a judge before wiretapping a suspect’s phone, intercepting their email, or videotaping their activities. Although the laws that apply to surveillance by private parties vary by state, it is usually illegal in instances where the target has a legitimate expectation of privacy, such as at home or in a public restroom.
Privacy at Home
In general, Americans enjoy the strongest constitutional protections for privacy within their own homes. For minors, however, the right to privacy at home must be balanced against parents’ duty to regulate their children’s behavior and protect their interests. Courts have found that parents have the legal authority to provide third-party consent for police to search dependent minors’ personal living space. A more common situation arises when parents, rather than law enforcement, search through teenagers’ intimate spaces, such as bedrooms, diaries, backpacks, emails, or text messages.
Research suggests that teenagers have a psychological need for privacy. As they mature, they naturally seek greater freedom and independence. They feel violated when their parents spy on them, eavesdrop on their private conversations, or look through their personal belongings without permission. Parents who disregard the privacy needs of adolescent children risk damaging their relationship, as teens who feel insecure are less likely to share information. At the same time, adolescence is a time of experimentation and risk-taking, when peers exert a stronger influence on young people’s attitudes and behaviors. Child development specialists acknowledge that it becomes more challenging for parents to protect their children’s health and safety during this period, so responsible parenting may entail close monitoring of teenagers’ activities.
To achieve a balance between teen privacy and parental authority, experts recommend that parents establish clear expectations for behavior and emphasize that privacy considerations must be earned like other privileges. The level of parental monitoring should be based on the teens’ demonstrated maturity and judgment. Before snooping or spying, parents are encouraged to talk to their teens and ask questions about their friends, school, activities, and choices. Invading teens’ privacy should be avoided unless parents notice suspicious patterns of behavior, such as staying out past curfew, getting bad grades, skipping school, lying, or using illegal substances.
Search and Surveillance in Schools
Young people have fewer privacy rights at school than they do at home. Public school teachers and administrators are state employees who have a duty of care for large numbers of minors. Courts generally have found that school officials’ responsibility to maintain order and ensure the safety and well-being of students outweighs the privacy rights of individual students. Teachers and administrators thus have wide latitude to search students’ lockers, backpacks, and vehicles parked on school grounds. The key Supreme Court ruling concerning school searches is New Jersey v. TLO (1985). The case involved a fourteen-year-old high school freshman who was accused of smoking cigarettes in violation of school policy. When the student denied smoking, the principal searched her purse and found not only cigarettes, but also marijuana and evidence of illegal drug dealing. Although the student claimed the search was unlawful, the court ruled that the principal’s actions were justified by reasonable suspicion.
Schools also employ surveillance technologies in the interests of student safety and discipline. They place security cameras in classrooms, hallways, playgrounds, and parking lots, for instance, and use tracking or filtering systems on school computer networks, Internet connections, and email accounts. Although these measures are intended to protect students and school property, critics claim that excessive school surveillance violates the privacy rights of students, stifles intellectual freedom, creates barriers between students and teachers, and harms the learning environment. When students know that they are under constant observation, they may feel reluctant to express their thoughts, ideas, or opinions for fear of criticism or embarrassment.
Students have privacy rights with regard to their educational records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974. This federal law protects the confidentiality of student records, which cannot be disclosed or released to outside parties without permission. It also gives parents the right to inspect, review, correct, or amend their children’s educational records. These rights transfer to individual students once they reach the age of eighteen or enroll in a school beyond the high school level. Some critics argue that FERPA rights transfer to students too early because college students can prevent their parents from seeing their grades even if their parents are paying their college expenses. Other critics assert that universities use FERPA as a shield to avoid releasing negative information about student conduct, such as an accusation of sexual assault against a star athlete.
Confidentiality and Health Care
Privacy is an important consideration for teens in obtaining health care. Many teens express reluctance to seek needed care for sensitive health issues—such as contraception, pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), substance abuse, or mental health—if they are required to inform their parents. Not seeking treatment, however, can lead to negative health outcomes. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 is a federal law that protects the confidentiality of medical records and prohibits health care providers from unauthorized disclosure of patient information. HIPAA rules allow emancipated minors and people age eighteen or older to control the privacy of their own medical records. In most cases, though, parents have the right to access the medical records of their minor children.
All fifty states have laws granting minors the right to give or withhold consent for some forms of medical treatment under limited circumstances. Minors might be allowed to consent to emergency treatment when a parent is unavailable, for instance, or they might be allowed to withhold consent for an invasive treatment if they disagree with their parents’ decision. When minors seek health care on their own, there is some controversy surrounding whether providers can keep that information confidential from parents. As of 2018, every state allows minors to receive confidential treatment for STIs, while twenty-six states give teens confidential access to contraceptives. Only two states allow minors to obtain a confidential abortion, however, while thirty-eight states have laws requiring parental consent, notification, or both. Some states give health care providers discretion to preserve confidentiality for “mature minors,” or young patients who have the capacity to supervise their own medical decisions, but thirty-four states do not have such provisions.
Data Security and Online Privacy
Maintaining the privacy and security of minors’ personal data is a particular problem in the digital age. Young people are among the heaviest users of technology and social media, and they tend to share a great deal of information about themselves online. Publicizing this information makes teens vulnerable to online dangers, such as sexual predators, cyberbullies, hackers, and identity thieves. Although many devices and services offer parental controls and filters to restrict minors’ access to inappropriate online content, only 39 percent of parents use them, according to a 2016 survey from the Pew Research Center. In the same report, however, 60 percent of parents affirmed that they have checked their teens’ browsing histories or social media profiles. Controlling the privacy of personal information online is expected to become even more complicated with the emergence of the Internet of Things, a vast network of interconnected “smart” devices. These devices include electronic toys and mobile apps that collect and store data, voice recordings, and images to create personal profiles of minors.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which took effect in 2000, established rules for collecting, storing, and transmitting personal information about children under age thirteen. It requires website operators and online service providers to create privacy policies, obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting children’s personal information, and implement measures to keep children’s data secure. Critics charge that COPPA encourages minors to commit age fraud to bypass parental consent requirements. They also claim that the stiff fines imposed on companies for noncompliance serve to limit the amount and variety of online content available to minors.
Teens’ online activity also exposes them to surveillance by law enforcement. In 2010 the New York City Police Department (NYPD) began carrying out long-term surveillance of the predominantly black residents of two public housing projects as part of an anti-gang operation. In addition to conducting audio and video surveillance, officers looked at millions of social media interactions to collect evidence against the residents. In some cases, they gained access to private accounts by sending friend requests from fake profiles. This tactic enabled adult officers to monitor the social media activity of children as young as ten years old without notifying their parents or guardians. Critics claimed that the surveillance operation violated residents’ privacy rights as well as federal laws designed to protect minors online.