Q: My 14-year-old son recently told me that he wants more privacy and no longer wants to allow me to check his text messages, Instagram, and emails. He claims that he needs more freedom and independence as he is growing up and feels as though my checking his social media is an invasion of his privacy. What should I do?
~Indecisive over independence, USA
A: Dear Indecisive,
Your question reflects one of the major challenges of parenting an adolescent: finding ways to provide increasing freedom while at the same time ensuring that he takes responsibility for that freedom.
A 14 year old does not yet have the cognitive ability to fully understand the concept of privacy—at least not the way adults do. Most 14 year olds I’ve talked to define privacy as ‘keeping my parents clueless’. That may be because adolescence is a time when young people are seeking autonomy as individuals and, specifically, defining themselves as separate from their parents.
That can make it difficult to know what your role is, but that role is still important: You can help your son learn a more adult concept of privacy and help him learn to protect himself, not just in the present, but into the future as well. To do this, you need to parent him in the digital domain, just as it sounds like you have been doing—through monitoring his online activities and accessing his devices and social media accounts.
Because many parents feel inept compared to their children when it comes to the internet, they often default that space as a ‘kids-only zone’, allowing children to assume that parents don’t have the right to monitor their online activities. However, your involvement in his online activities is similar to your involvement in his offline activities. Just as you wouldn’t let him go to a party at a house you didn’t know, unaware of how it may be monitored or whether alcohol, drugs, or weapons may be present, do not let him go online or into social media spaces without making yourself aware of what he is exposed to and how he is behaving.
Although your son will most likely not be happy with your continued monitoring, explain that as he demonstrates his ability to act responsibly online, keep an open dialogue with you about any concerns he has, and avoid potential risky or dangerous activities, you will check less often. In the meantime, the knowledge that at any time you can visit his text messages, Instagram, or Facebook page may help him behave in ways that you expect of him until they become habits—and leave the door open for discussion about what’s happening in that space. Just as he may earn the privilege of driving on his own once he has demonstrated that he can do so safely, he may also earn online privacy when he has demonstrated that he can behave responsibly in that domain.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,