Earlier this school year, one of my daughter’s friends was outed as gay. The person who outed her was a mom who found out because she had been reading her kid’s Snapchat messages.
This type of teen phone monitoring is a regular thing for this mom. She knows all the latest middle school gossip and who likes who. And yes, it’s all because she reads the texts and messages of teenagers and then shares that info with others. She routinely checks and monitors her child’s device. I know this because she’s told me. She’s not really concerned that her daughter is doing anything wrong or dangerous. She’s mostly just curious about what’s going on in her teenager’s life. Her child is in 8th grade.
Now I usually find that, after hearing something like this, parents tend to fall into one of two camps: On one side are those who are upset and outraged that a parent would feel like they have the right and privilege to read a teen's personal messages. On the other side, there are parents who feel like they absolutely have the right to monitor their child’s phone. They will say their child is under 18 and has no right to privacy.
I’m not here to explicitly say one side is right or wrong. But I do hope to offer another perspective.
But first, let's talk about the three scary things: drugs, sex, and depression.
As a parent of two teenagers, I fully understand the angst of parenting this age group. If you've heard even just a bit of about online predators and teen anxiety and depression, you'd understand why some parents of teens might be in a constant panic.
But no one wants to live like that. At least I don't. So my personal philosophy is that I don’t do teen phone monitoring unless they give me a reason to. This can mean different things to different people, but for me, I believe in starting with trust. Then their dad or I take it from there with our own parental instinct.
Now the three things I see parents most concerned about are drug use, depression, and sex (mostly related to online predators). I would never tell another parent they shouldn’t look out for their child and be there for them. However, statistically it's unlikely that these things will happen to most kids. Plus I don’t think reading kids' text messages is the best way to protect them.
“When you’re an adolescent, you’re exploring who you are and your place in the world, and you need to have the chance to do that without being in a petri dish under a microscope,” says Anne Collier, who has been writing about youth and digital media since the 1990s.
She is the founder of the nonprofit The Net Safety Collaborative and has given a TEDx talk on digital citizenship. She argues that historically young people have had the opportunity to grow up without being monitored and that things shouldn’t be any different today.
“There’s no question adults are well meaning most of the time, but their behavior is often not healthy for them,” she says. “It’s not healthy for their children either.”
Let’s get real—is it actually a safety concern?
Collier says it’s time to get truly honest with our intentions when it comes to teen phone monitoring and why we monitor.
“Is it helicopter parenting? Is it drone parenting? It is curiosity?” she questions. “You have to compare whether it’s a desire to know everything your child is doing or if it’s truly an honest concern for their safety. Those things are different.”
Many psychologists tend to agree. There are plenty of articles that advocate for giving teens privacy online and not using monitoring or surveillance apps. Collier says that teens don’t just desire some kind of privacy—they need it. It's part of growing up. I think about my own teenage years, and I certainly appreciate my mom NOT knowing every little detail of my life.
When looking at whether safety is an actual concern, Collier encourages parents to look at the whole child and determine your approach from there.
“The question is, who is your child?” she says. “Is your child emotionally vulnerable? It’s individual. It’s situational. And it’s contextual.”
This doesn’t imply a hands-off approach. It just means having to figure out what works for you and your kids. Personally, I try to talk openly and educate my kids. I’ve talked to them about things like catfishing, and I’ve always tried to be open about tackling those other sensitive topics, like sex or drugs. My focus is less on safety and teen phone monitoring. Instead, it's more about equipping them with the knowledge to handle anything.
With teen phone monitoring, do teens actually have any legal rights?
So back to the scenario at the start—my daughter’s friend was outed. Does she have any legal or privacy rights as a 14-year-old? I was curious about this, so I spoke to Elizabeth Burke, a child advocate attorney. I asked her if kids above the age of 13 have any rights.
“No. The right to privacy has always been a hotly contested legal issue,” she says. “In fact, several justices of the United States Supreme Court believe that a Constitutional right to privacy does not exist for adults, let alone minors. While states can choose to legislate the issue more specifically, in general, parents are allowed to access their minor children’s belongings and communications, especially if they are doing so for their children’s best interest.”
So then it becomes a question of a child's best interest. Burke clarifies, “If you think your child might be the victim of a predator, is having suicidal thoughts, or has a drug addiction, then monitoring the child’s communication and devices seems like an obvious step towards protecting them. The trickier area is things like is your child being bullied or bullying other kids on social media?”
Although a minor child technically doesn’t have a legal right to privacy, that doesn’t give the adults in charge free rein. She points out that in the family law context, though, there can be legal implications when adults do certain things.
Let's keep trying to change the dialogue.
Admittedly, this doesn’t do much for my daughter’s friend, who had her personal information broadcast to others without her consent. Though it does help me drive home a message that I’ve always told my kids: Don't assume that anything is private. If you hit send on a message or picture, then that information is out there.
I tell them, “Imagine all your messages are being broadcast in Times Square or that your grandma is copied on each one. Don't say it if you don't want others to know.”
I don’t like it when my child’s privacy is invaded by another busybody parent who decides teen phone monitoring is a good idea, but it happens. So I will continue speaking up against it. And I'll continue sharing my opinion with other parents, hoping to change the dialogue. At the very least, I know my approach means my kids will be better equipped to navigate through this digital age.