Parenting Versus Teen Privacy


Q. My daughter’s smartphone buzzed when she was out of the room. I picked it up to see who was texting her and was puzzled by the message that previewed on the screen, so I read the entire exchange. What I discovered concerned me. When I talked to her about it, she turned the tables on me and said I’d invaded her privacy. The issue I discovered is important and I don’t want to lose the chance to guide her behavior, but now we’re only arguing about privacy and whether or not I trust her. How much privacy should I allow my daughter?


A.  Despite their insistence to the contrary, kids aren’t entitled to privacy in the same way as adults, and how much privacy you allow depends on each child. If your children have built a record of trust, you might generally maintain a “hands off” approach to their use of technology and media. But privacy should never trump your concerns about any issue you feel needs your parental attention.

That said, the rule of thumb in the digital age is: There’s no such thing as privacy.

That message wasn’t meant for you, it’s true. But there’s nothing to prevent your daughter or her friend from taking a screenshot of it and forwarding it to others. This is why it’s vital that kids understand how technology can be manipulated by anyone who wants to violate their intended privacy.

If you read the text exchange because you were already suspicious that something was up, say so and remind your daughter that you reserve the right to go looking for information when you believe she may be hiding something that could endanger her or someone else (think sex, drug use, covering for others, and so on). This means you may read her texts, see her social media pages, and check her phone records.

If you read her message inadvertently or out of curiosity, let her know you didn’t go snooping intentionally because you were worried about her, but you are now. Your glimpse into her friendship raised an issue you can’t ignore, even if the manner in which you learned of it annoys her.

Backing parents into a corner with an emotional outburst of “You don’t trust me!” is a time-honored deflection technique employed by generations of teens. Don’t fall for it! When she levels this accusation, your answer is, “Of course I trust you! I trust that you’re a teenager and you’ll make mistakes, and you need my guidance and instruction to grow up the way God intends.”

This episode is an important reminder that parents should be vigilant, especially when we put the means to greater freedom into our kids’ hands by way of a smartphone. Freedom is an important factor in developing responsibility, but it’s also the avenue to poor, even risky, choices.

What your daughter calls invading her privacy I would call parenting, though progressive parenting specialists might disagree with me. Some say teens deserve privacy and the respect it conveys, just as an adult would. I believe that the risks of respecting a teen’s privacy are greater than the risk of hurting her pride by inserting yourself into her life.

The key is to foster a relationship in which your teen knows she can talk to you about anything, even things that are difficult. When you respond to unsettling information calmly and demonstrate the maturity you want your teen to emulate, you create the environment for transparency.

Trust is earned and rewarded with freedom, responsibility, and yes — privacy. But it’s not an entitlement until that teen is on her own and living as an independent adult.

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