Teens and Privacy: Balance is Key

Teens’ Right to Privacy vs. Keeping Them Safe

If there’s one thing that teenagers will fight for in their lives, it’s privacy – the freedom to do as they wish, without “nosy” parents or siblings prying into their activities.

Unfortunately, there are times when teens aren’t doing things they should be or they are doing things they shouldn’t be doing. In the past, the privacy issue revolved around whether parents should search their child’s room or read her diary.

Today, there are the much more complicated concerns about internet use:

  • cyber-bullying
  • the amount of time kids spend on the internet
  • the appropriateness of the sites they are accessing.


Two Common Mistakes Parents Make

  • One is to abandon children by letting go too early (for example, not checking your middle schooler’s social media posts) before they are ready to handle increased responsibility.

  • The second error is to let go too late (for example, insisting on reading all of your teen’s texts) which disempowers children by not giving them the freedom that their good judgment and behavior indicate they can handle.

Let’s look at some steps you can take to ensure your teen is given the right level of privacy.

Knowing your Children

The best place to start is by observing your children’s behavior. Think about how they’ve acted over the past few years, and be honest about your assessment – if they’ve already demonstrated maturity in a particular area, then you may not need to monitor them as diligently.

teen talking on phone

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Children who have made good decisions in the past are less likely to engage in risky or dangerous behavior in the future, but this isn’t an absolute.

Remember, kids are a work-in-progress, so you will need to be alert for behavior that indicates a need for you to step back in with greater supervision.

On the other hand, if your children have demonstrated a history of untrustworthiness, then you should keep a closer eye on them – turning a blind eye to their behavior isn’t just irresponsible, it’s potentially dangerous.

For example, if they are staying out beyond curfew with a new group of friends, their plans are often sketchy, and their grades have dropped precipitously, you may want to ask your child directly about his behavior and any illegal drug or alcohol usage.

You may need to then follow up by looking in his room for signs of substance abuse paraphernalia. Yes, you are invading his privacy but the goal in this situation is keep him safe and on a healthy track.


Letting Go Over Time

Few things get a teenager riled up faster than the sense that they’re not being treated like a grown-up and not being given a say in things that affect them. Involving them in creating an action plan that clearly indicates the different levels of privacy you’re willing to give them is a way to show respect for them and to indicate your trust in them.

Explain to your teen that greater privacy is something they’ll have to earn – and there are specific things they can do to move forward. They will see that greater responsibility leads to more privileges and freedoms.

For example, when you get to know their friends and maybe even their friends’ parents, you will be more likely to allow them to spend more time at the friends’ homes.

Most teens are actually very responsive when you treat them seriously; frame their sacred right to privacy as an agreement between two mature individuals.

Remember, you must uphold your end of the bargain if this is going to be effective. The agreement will lose its value if your teen starts to see you as untrustworthy.

Teen’s Privacy: Getting Started

A major area of concern for parents is keeping their children safe with the ever-changing technology. The best time to start establishing rules for technology usage is when your child receives his first personal device.

rulesMiddle school years are a common time for a child to receive a cell phone, though particularly responsible children who have shown good judgment and been reliable in the past may be able to handle a device sooner.

Also, if your children are active in school or community organizations and need to let you know when they are ready to be picked up, or if they are walking home alone, you may want them to have a phone at a younger age.

Setting Rules

Make it clear from the very start that their privacy on the device is limited – you’ll be checking what’s installed on it regularly, and perhaps even adding a monitoring app so you can track its location and what he’s doing on it. It is helpful to explain that you are setting these rules not because you don’t trust him but because it is your job to keep him safe.

Cite some specific examples that are relevant to your child’s interests, such as using the GPS function to locate him if he gets lost while exploring the outdoors – this provides a tangible connection to his life and helps him see the monitoring as a positive thing instead of a negative one.

At the same time, explain that there are things he can do to earn greater privileges. This should be something he can accomplish in the near future, ideally within two weeks, and ought to be associated with a specific reward.

For example, if he finishes his homework before he uses the device for entertainment purposes, he will be allowed to use the device for an additional time each day. Other potential rewards you can offer over time include:

  • being allowed to keep the device for more time (instead of giving it back to you when time is up)
  • upgrading from a basic device to a larger, better one
  • not needing to ask for permission before downloading an app


If your Teen is not Responsible

Of course, should things take a turn in the other direction, make sure you’re prepared to revoke privileges in order to teach responsibility to your child. If your concern is over one or two text messages rather than a pattern, it’s probably best to ask your teen about it directly. He may not be happy that you had looked at his phone, but a bad attitude is preferable to overlooking a potentially dangerous situation.

However, if your child seems to be lying or these suspicious patterns persist, don’t hesitate to take more extreme measures.

For example, if you end up with reason to suspect your child may be skipping school—maybe you have found suspiciously coded text messages on his phone–you will have to make a judgment call about whether to read his diary if he has one, look through his backpack, search his room, and/or contact the school.


What’s Next?

Remember that the privacy issue is one that you will have to re-visit as your children grow and mature. It’s important to let them know that as their behavior and situation change, you will continue to monitor them because part of your responsibility as a parent is to make sure that they are safe.

Remind them that as they show good judgment and trustworthiness, you will give them more freedoms and more privacy, but the rope will be pulled back if you become concerned that they are not taking good care of themselves or making good decisions.

And be sure that you follow through so your children have no doubt that you will be watching out for them and their best interests, even if that offends their sense of autonomy.


By Amy Williams,
a journalist and former social worker, passionate about parenting and education




For more information about raising a teen, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Yes, Your Teen is Crazy by Bradley Uncommon Sense for Parents of Teenagers by Riera The Roller Coaster Years by Giannetti and Sagarese The Second Family by Taffel Raising a Teenager by Elium How to Hug a Porcupine - Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years by Ross You and Your Adolescent by Steinberg

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