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How much privacy should you allow your teenager?

There’s a fine line between protecting and being overbearing

Contributing writer

On more than one occasion (trust me on this), your teenager is going to do or say something that will be a punch to the gut.

One memorable gut-punch for me was when I “friended” (or attempted to “friend”) my then-16-year-old daughter on Facebook.

Crickets.

“Why didn’t you accept my Facebook friend request?” I asked Samantha.

“Dad, that’s creepy. I don’t want you stalking me.”

When it comes to the issue of teens and privacy – and how much parental scrutiny a teen should be prepared to open himself or herself up to – parents often find themselves in a pickle.

Where is the line between stalking teenagers and making sure they are safe as they undergo the universal ritual of beginning to stake out a life of their own?

No parent can deny that teens expect and deserve boundaries. The adolescent years involve developing identities that are independent of Mom and Dad – a necessary stage in the transformation of teens into individuals who soon must take sole responsibility, for better or worse, for all they do and say.

To some degree, of course, parents need to have prying eyes. But how much is too much?

Carol, of Huntington Beach, is pretty vigilant when it comes to keeping on top of what her 16-year-old daughter is up to.

When Carol’s daughter turned 13, she decided to buy her a smartphone, but the phone came with a caveat – an app on Carol’s phone that allowed her to track where her daughter was at all times.

Her daughter’s phone always had to be fully charged and turned on, or she would lose the privilege of having the phone.

“She and I had a conversation about me being able to track her, and she knew that was part of the agreement of her having a phone,” Carol says. “I trust her, and when she’s out with friends on a Friday night I will check to see if she’s where she says she is. So far, she hasn’t failed yet.”

Carol believes her “Find My iPhone” app is perfectly reasonable (Carol pays for the phone and her daughter is a minor) and that it serves a dual purpose.

“I think she has plenty of freedom,” Carol says, “but I look at it this way: If she were to get into trouble, I would know where to find her. So part of what this is about is security and safety.”

More vigilance online

Virtually all teens (and preteens) practically live on social media these days. Luckily for parents, there are several tools to see what websites your teen is visiting.

Experts and authorities agree that parents need to be more – not less – vigilant about their teenagers’ online habits. 

Cyberbullying and the transmission of sexually explicit photos among youths, to say nothing of the dangers of child sexual predators who hunt for victims online, is a growing problem, police say.

Detectives and school resource officers at the Fullerton Police Department, for example, have seen a spike in juveniles misusing their mobile phones and other computer devices to transmit inappropriate pictures and inappropriate content to one another, according to a recent story on the law enforcement website behindthebadgeoc.com.

Fullerton officers emphasize that electronically sending obscene matter involving a minor is a crime.

So when it comes to the internet, parents have every right to monitor how their teens are using it, according to experts.

“I insist parents must draw the line at safety,” says psychologist Julie Orris, whose private practice is in Newport Beach. “If a teenager shows a pattern of decision-making that places them at risk, it is a parent’s job to intervene and protect by limiting the child’s access to dangers. For example, if a teen is found to be vulnerable to online predators, internet activity may need to be more heavily monitored.”

Carol had given her daughter some rope for a while but had to reel her in when she came home one night with the smell of alcohol on her breath.

The next morning, Carol used one of her in-home drug kits to test her daughter.

The test revealed marijuana in her daughter’s system. For one month, her daughter lost all her privileges.

More responsible behavior equals
more privacy?

This experience touches on what another expert sees as a critical issue when it comes to the level of privacy a parent should afford his or her teenager.

James Lehman, who has a master’s degree in social work and writes for the website empoweringparents.com, believes there should be a direct link between the amount of responsibility, consistency and honesty that kids show and the amount of privacy they’re allowed to have.

And if a teen messes up, well, allowing them less privacy not only is appropriate, but also is the duty of any responsible parent, he says.

And this applies to relationships, too.

Carol says her daughter’s bedroom door always must remain open when her boyfriend comes over to visit. “That’s just simple respect,” Carol says.

Orris says regarding privacy and teens, she often points parents to the balance between “fostering dependence and forcing autonomy,” as well as the balance between “authoritarian control and excessive leniency.” Both are concepts in her field of expertise, dialectical behavior therapy. 

“I encourage parents to pay attention to what skills their child has in terms of managing autonomy, making decisions, and maintaining personal safety and respond accordingly,” Orris says. “I think sometimes parents have ideas about what their children ‘should’ be able to manage, or reference their teenage selves rather than paying attention to the teenager they are parenting.”

If a parent errs too far on the side of control, Orris says, teens do not learn the necessary skills to navigate the freedoms they have as adults.

“Teens need to learn how to present themselves on social media, how to stand up for themselves in dating relationships, and possibly how to use substances without risking health and safety,” Orris says, emphasizing she’s not suggesting that parents should allow kids to drink and do drugs.

“I am suggesting, however, that if parents prevent teens from ever having the opportunity to make decisions and to make mistakes, they will not learn the skills necessary to manage these freedoms when they emancipate,” Orris says.

As Carol sees it, a responsible parent should know when to loosen the leash when it comes to privacy and when to tighten it.

“Teenagers should have privileges when it comes to privacy,” Carol says. “But at the end of the day, I’m the one who makes the decisions. It’s my responsibility as a parent to ensure that her decision-making is good, and if it’s not, I’ll step in.” 

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