Advice & Features Articles

Parenting Teens: How far should you go to respect your teen’s privacy?

by Christa Melnyk Hines

Teens by nature crave independence and privacy. As parents, how far should we go to respect their privacy while still ensuring that they’re making sound decisions?

“The goal is for teens to gradually assume more responsibility for their own judgment,” says Dr. Rochelle Harris, a clinical psychologist. “This isn’t clear cut—like when they turn 16, you get off of their Facebook or Instagram. It’s really more of making sure those foundations of communication are there.”

Determining how much oversight tweens or teens require often depends on their levels of maturity, their friends, and their personalities. Maturity can vary greatly especially in the middle school years.

Where one tween might not have completely put away her dolls, another might be more keyed into social issues and sexual experimentation in middle school—which means you’ll need to have a stronger handle on what’s happening in their social circle.

“Who our kids hang out with will determine who they become,” says Tom Kersting, psychotherapist and author of Disconnected: How to Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids. 

As our kids get older, we may be less likely to know their friends’ parents and how much wiggle room they give their kids. While your teen will try to make you feel as if you’re the lone drill sergeant compared to their friends’ parents, stand firm about what you feel is appropriate for your child.

“Our job as parents is to make sure our kids are safe and doing the right things,” Kersting says.

No mysteries 
As soon as your child has access to any digital device, create a “digital citizenship contract” (check online for examples) to make your expectations for online behavior and your house rules crystal clear.

Establish sensible consequences to help your kids learn from their mistakes. For example, rather than taking away the phone for two months, set tighter limits like less daily phone time and increased oversight from you until they prove they’re responsible enough to handle it.

“A month later, if something similar happens, you do the same thing,” Dr. Harris says.

Strike a healthy balance by setting a curfew for when all electronics are turned off each evening. “Nothing good happens at 12:30 on a school night if your teen has their phone in their room,” Dr. Harris says.

Besides sleep deprivation, research suggests that the more time a teen spends online, the more likely she’ll experience cyberbullying. A study presented to the American Public Health Association, also found that “hyper-networkers,” or teens who spend three or more hours a day on social networking sites, were 84 percent more likely to have used illicit drugs and three and a half times more likely to have had sex.

Inquiring minds want to know. Teens are likely to shut you out if you get too nosy. Instead, ask “naive” questions to get them thinking critically about issues that can happen online and in their social circles. For example:

“I’m hearing a lot about cyberbullying. What does that look like?”

“If someone says something nasty and you push ‘like’ on it, does that mean you’re part of that bullying or are you saying you like that person? What does that mean?”

“Use that as an opportunity to talk about the fundamentals of communication,” Dr. Harris says. “Don’t text a friend when you’re upset. Don’t spread gossip—it may make you feel like you’re connected with someone, but it isn’t really the way to connect, and it can be very hurtful.”

And ask if they’d be comfortable with someone they love and respect, like Grandma, seeing what they’ve posted on their Snapchat account.

When to pry
Tell your kids that you’ll be checking their social media content and text messages.

“If kids know that their parent is going to be looking through their stuff, they’re less likely to get themselves in a pickle somewhere with inappropriate content or private sites where they’re talking to people from all over the country,” Kersting says.

Some areas of a kid’s life, however, should be off-limits, like bedrooms and private journals, say most experts.

“The only exception to this is if you are concerned for their safety. In that case, well-being trumps privacy,” says family therapist Lisa Ruff, LMSW.

Before snooping through his room, talk to your teen to see if you can figure out why he seems troubled. Consult with your child’s physician if you notice changes in behavior, school avoidance, changes in diet or sleep, or withdrawing from favorite activities, family, and friends.

Set aside time together
To help get your child out of her bedroom and into the family room with you, Kersting suggests carving out a device-free 15 to 20 minutes each evening for “mandatory family talk time.” This might be at dinner time or before bed.

“This is such a hugely important way of developing a connection with our kids—for our kids to trust us and be able to communicate with us freely and tell us the things that are bothering them,” he says.

At least once a month, spend time one-on-one with your teen without the distractions of phones or other electronic devices to ensure that you’re both present with one another.

“Let them pick what to do,” Ruff advises. “Without siblings being present, homework to be done, or an activity to rush to, conversation flows easier.”

The time you spend with your teens will benefit them now and into the future, notes Kersting.

“Kids who actually enjoy hanging out with their parents are the ones who all of the research shows are overall better human beings as they progress in terms of their happiness, well-being, self-esteem, achievements, and so forth.”

Editor’s Note: Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World. 

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