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When a teenager demands privacy

Is the privacy of a minor son or daughter a right or a privilege? Should checking (having a close supervision of) the cellphone or a kid’s belongings be done? When a child is young there is practically no separation from their parents, but when they become teenagers they need to become separate and individualize. Nevertheless, the potential of risk behaviors increases during teenage years. How to find a balance and act reasonably in such a sensible matter?

A frequent question that arises from parents is how much privacy their children need, and you ask yourself if it is right to violate such privacy. In order to answer properly this question, you should directly relate the responsibility, coherence and honesty that your children show with the privacy that you allow them to have.

Before providing an answer about the level of privacy that’s permitted for your children, it is important to speak briefly about their need for privacy in the different stages of their development.

When a boy or girl is young, there’s practically no separation from their parents. Attachment is instinctive and the further creation of emotional bonds based on contact and communication throughout time create enough confidence for the person to be able to relate to others. But as children develop and grow, a natural and healthy separation takes place. Your children can manifest this separation process in many ways: they go to the bathroom and close the door because they want privacy, the younger ones rejects your help “to do it by him or herself” or a teenager will lock down in their room to listen to music. At almost any age, we need to have some time and space by ourselves and the levels of privacy and the lines or borders of separation become clearer when they are teenagers.

Teenagers want to have a life of their own and it is precisely at this stage in which they must be preparing for that. Nonetheless, this is the age in which risk conducts can appear more frequently, especially in a digitalized environment that allows unlimited access from any stranger, or known person, with ill intentions that could incite them towards inappropriate conducts online or provide them with drugs.

If to all this we add physical and personal contact distancing from quarantine, derived from the pandemics we are experiencing and the increased amount of time that our children spend online, questioning whether if to allow them total privacy or not  should be a topic that becomes relevant and that must be addressed.

I’m not going to use the word “spy”, because of its negative connotation, associated with a concealed activity in order to achieve something illicit. I will use the term “check” that, given the context, means to keep close supervision in order to know what they are up to, how are they expressing themselves and what do they think, which means to know their real interests and not the ones that we can be imagining or presuming.

In fact, this is the only real way to get to know them without sticking to the version that they want us to know, building a narrative to calm us down, telling us what we want to listen.

When you enter their room to clear it or help them pick the laundry up and clean, we are not talking about “close supervision”. The term “close supervision” must be applied only when parents start to inspect the closets and drawers of their children, to search their phones, their backpacks, their pants pockets and their bathroom.

When not to check closely.

If your teenager has a responsible conduct, respects schedules, tells the truth as to where and with whom they are and, in general, is reliable and honest, then stay out of their room and of their belongings. Don’t check closely. They have earned your trust and you should let them know that. Therefore, they will know that such trust is the direct result of their actions. This doesn’t mean that, occasionally, you won’t check their cellphone. Check their pictures, chats (remember that it is not just WhatsApp, there’s also Snap Chat, Instagram, TikTok, Tubo and other social apps).

When to check closely.

When the “game” has changed for worse. If you have found something that incriminates them or you have a real or well-founded suspicion regarding high risk activities for your son or daughter, you should check closely to overcome doubt. This means when their safety is at risk.

Don’t hesitate. You are the one paying the lease, mortgage or who bought the house, you are in charge. Besides, you are legally and morally responsible of the safety and wellbeing of your sons and daughters, so it is your responsibility.

If they are at risk, you should intervene and in order to do so effectively you need to verify and find out about it and about any suspicion of antisocial, delinquent or symptomatic conduct of any personality disorder, for example (without this being an exhaustive list):

  • stealing, fighting, bullying, gang association
  • or premature sexual activity, sexting (sending, receiving or storing of images depicting sexual content, specially of underaged minors, this being a felony)
  • or risk conducts online (besides sexting, bullying conducts online, hacking, cyber blackmailing, phishing, fraud, online drug selling, etcetera)
  • or alcohol consumption, tobacco, vape or marijuana. Consumption of any addictive substance.
  • or self-harming, suicide thoughts, violent and opposing conducts.

You are liable of protecting your children from themselves, even when they don’t want that protection. This is not a matter of rights, but a matter of responsibilities and obligations.

If you think that your son or daughter is drinking alcohol, consuming any kind of drug or participating in any risky behavior mentioned before or not, you are under the obligation of looking into their room and their cellphone, which by the way and in case you’ve forgotten, you are paying for (besides it is under your name, so you are primarily responsible for its whole content before the authorities and the world).

A can of beer, an empty bottle, marijuana traces (for example, seeds), pills that you don’t know, knives or other hidden sharp objects are enough reason to turn on your “radar” and look around because it is your responsibility to protect your children from themselves and, in order to achieve it, you need knowledge and certainty.

Monitoring of phones, computers and social media.

The main argument that young people throw to deter their parents from checking their electronic devices is that they have a “right to their privacy”, “to their private life”. They clearly do, but the limit to their privacy is their safety. And as underaged minors, they depend on you legally and economically, so safety comes before privacy.

From the moment you give them a cellphone or a computer with Internet access, you should set rules and boundaries clearly. I suggest you warn them -from the beginning- that it is a privilege, not a right, and that in order to keep it they should comply with a series of requirements such as:

  • It can’t be used to harm or hurt anybody else or yourself.
  • You can’t access online sites with pornographic content, hate speech, racism or any kind of violence.
  • You can’t display sensitive personal information, passwords or pictures that reflect your social status, travelling, clothes or locations for holidays or regular activities.
  • The time you spend using it should be agreed upon according to the circumstances and places of usage (school, home, weekend, holidays, quarantine, etcetera) and you will never be allowed to “sleep” with devices in your room. They will be recharged in the adults’ room. (If they state that they use the cellphone alarm to wake up, buy them a regular alarm clock).
  • I will have Access to your cellphone, passwords, and social media at any time.

Without these -being talked about and even signed by them and by yourself- don’t provide any electronic device because, otherwise, it would be the equivalent of giving them a powerful car without them knowing how to drive. It is unthinkable, right? Then why wouldn’t you protect them in their Internet browsing?

The phrase that you can use regarding the use of devices and, in general, their conduct and alleged right to privacy is: “You don’t have a right to keep secrets if that is something that puts you at risk or puts our family at risk.”

If you discover anything incriminating, for sure, they will come up with the argument of: “I can’t believe you were spying on me!” to deflect attention from the main topic. Don’t fall into that trap: “I told you that I was going to check your things. If you want to yell, go yell somewhere else, but what matters is that you are using marijuana and that is what we are going to talk about. I’m not violating your rights; you are violating the safety in our house.”

Privacy is a privilege, not a right.

In order to allow your children to keep their privacy, they should act in a reliable and honest way (good grades are not a guarantee, and this shouldn’t be the only criteria to rely on). If they lose their privilege, they should know that this is the price they pay for acting in a dishonest and unreliable way. They must learn that, in life, losing somebody’s trust is very powerful. Trust is not to be taken lightly, either in or out of the household. Their work will depend on it, their relationship with a partner and many other aspects of their lives in the future.

You must take measures to keep your children safe from what’s happening in the outside world and from their own bad choices, especially if there are other minors living with them.

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