Do Your Kids Have a Right to Privacy? The Great Debate

One of the childhood stages that most catches parents by surprise is adolescence, when kids begin to pull away from them and take their first steps toward independence. While parents know this is inevitable, many feel caught off guard by it.

Most kids begin displaying this need by spending hours alone in their bedrooms or becoming very protective over their personal belongings. By the time they’re teenagers, some barely utter more than a “fine” when their parents ask how their day went. Their desire for privacy seems to escalate by the day, and adults are left to wonder how much of it they’re entitled to — if any.

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Given the digital world we live in, where social media prompts us to share as much of our lives as possible, there are more than enough reasons to merit a parent’s concern over giving a child too much privacy. 

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Access to the Internet and social media presents the potential for all kinds of problems that parents didn’t face 10 or 20 years ago, including the prying eyes of strangers and the danger of cultivating (perhaps unintentionally) a bad reputation. A person’s digital footprint can be easy to track and near impossible to erase, so many parents are concerned about giving their children too much leeway. After all, how are you supposed to guide them toward responsible choices and teach them right from wrong if you’re not privy to what they’re thinking, saying, and doing — or whom they’re doing it with — whether they’re online or off? How much privacy are kids really entitled to?

What the research says

A Columbia University review of studies concluded that the majority opinion among experts as well as parents is that children are entitled to a certain amount of privacy, “while recognizing that this right should be qualified according to the child’s age and evolving capacities.”

In other words, a 10-year-old who shares his room with a younger sibling may become increasingly entitled to his own space, but not to his own cellphone or laptop. Of course, that depends on the parent as much as the child, and this is where things get cloudy. Taking into account age, maturity level, and personality, among other things, another parent may determine that 10 is a suitable age for a phone, and even condone their child engaging with others on carefully selected (and monitored) social media channels. (It bears mentioning that websites that collect information from children under the age of 13 are required to comply with certain Federal Trade Commission regulations, thanks to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, otherwise known as COPPA.) Another mom or dad may think this is totally unacceptable. The key is to know what your child — and you — are ready for, and make decisions accordingly to the best of your ability.

Concerns about what kids do online is justified, given that’s where most of the “flirting, gossiping, relationship-building, and ‘hanging out’ takes place,” according to one Harvard Law School literature review. Hence it’s no surprise that 50 percent of parents admit to using parental controls to block, filter, or monitor their child’s online activities, and 42 percent have searched for their child’s name online, according to the Pew Research Center.

What the experts say

You’d be hard-pressed to find a parenting expert who will say your kids are entitled to privacy without any caveats. In fact, most agree that a certain amount of monitoring is synonymous with good, responsible parenting. “The difference between responsible monitoring and spying is the ‘gotcha’ factor,” Nurit Sheinberg, director of research and evaluation at the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told Parenting magazine. Most experts recommend that parents lay out the rules and boundaries for how much privacy is considered acceptable, and tweak them as kids mature and display their ability to be trusted.

Trust needs to be earned, but even when it is, that doesn’t mean parents are off the hook. If you decide to install blocking software on your child’s computer or insist on knowing their passwords, be upfront about it. “Installing spying software is akin to setting up surveillance outside the school or following him on a date. A better way: Have the conversation up front about the dangers of the online world and how you plan to monitor their online activity,” Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, told NBC’s TODAY Moms. “That conversation begins with acknowledging that a child’s access to a computer, the Internet, and social media is a privilege, not a right.”

This transparency may also help kids avoid feeling that you’re assuming the worst, and looking for ways to catch them doing something wrong. Let them know that you’ll be checking in from time to time, then give them an opportunity to earn more of your trust. “Assure your kids that you’re not monitoring their activity because you don’t trust them,” adds McCready. “Rather, it’s your job as their parent to help keep them safe and be on the lookout for online dangers that they may not even recognize.”

What the parents say

“Our kids have had to wait until they are ‘old enough,’ according to a website’s terms, then we get their passwords and check in occasionally. I follow them on Instagram and Twitter, I friend them on Facebook, and I attempt to keep up with Tumblr. If a password gets changed without our permission, or if the computer history gets deleted, they lose computer privileges. My now 16-year-old daughter was mad I wouldn’t allow her to get a Facebook account at 11, but by the time she was 13 she actually thanked me for keeping her away from all that Facebook drama she saw play out at school.”
     — Michele Doss Easter, Little Rock, Ark.

“I trust my kids until the trust is broken, but really the only privacy they are totally entitled to is when they are showering or using the bathroom.”
     — Emily Ruiz Menendez, Miami, Fla.

“I have their passwords, and we follow COPPA laws (for example, your 9-year-old isn’t allowed on Instagram). These are the basics for me. Earn it.”
     — Melissa Bilash, Wayne, Penn.

The bottom line

It stands to reason that if your child has a history of dangerous or disruptive behaviors, lying, or questionable friendships, keeping an extra eye on him or her is probably a good idea. But for most children, part of growing up is earning and receiving an age-appropriate amount of privacy, increasing as trust builds. Sometimes limits need to be tested in order for them to learn to trust themselves, which can be just as important as earning your trust. The key may lie in establishing clear expectations and perhaps even consequences before you’re faced with a challenge, so they’re given an opportunity to prove to themselves — and you — that they can be trusted. At the end of the day, kids need parents more than they need privacy; it’s about finding the right balance for your family.

(Photo: Getty Images)

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