How Much Privacy Should
Parent’s Grant Kids’ Digital Life?

Scenario: Your 13-year-old daughter comes home from school, runs crying up to her bedroom with cell phone in hand.

Do you:

  1. Go up and talk to your daughter but don’t ask to see the message on the phone.
  2. Demand to see the messages on the phone.
  3. Go back to making dinner and pretend nothing happened.

Happily for me, I’m still years away from having to make that decision. My oldest is only 6, and he does not have cell phone or even Internet connectivity.

But eventually, I, like many parents, will face unhappy technology scenarios and subsequent “values” decisions. The key question in my mind: how intrusive of privacy should parents be when it comes to technology?

Consider the latest social/legal conundrum facing authorities and parents in Greensburg, Pa. There, three teenage girls sent nude photos of themselves via cell phone to teenage boys, reports The New York Times.

The girls were charged with disseminating child pornography, while the boys were charged with possessing child pornography. Apparently, about 20 percent of teens send nude photos of themselves, reports the Times.

Some kids are coerced, while other send willingly. Either way, parents are often unaware of the behavior, reports the Times.

Experts worry that electronic messaging is a gateway for future abusers:

“Controlling behavior, unwarranted behavior, behavior where you say ‘no more’ and then there’s a continuation of that behavior, can easily turn into abuse,” said Esta Soler, the president of the (Family Violence Prevention Fund), which is supported by government agencies like the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, and corporations like Verizon.

Schools and parents have become somewhat aware of electronic bullying because of widely publicized cases like that of Megan Meier, the Missouri teenager who committed suicide after being taunted on MySpace. But Ms. Soler said abuse within teenage romantic relationships, particularly through digital mediums, was “a huge and basically unaddressed problem in this country.”

So does parent responsibility trump your child’s right to privacy? I realize that opinions on this matter run the full gamut and I don’t see a one-size fits all solution.


  1. At what age should parents stop monitoring a child’s email and browsing habits?
  2. Boys will be boys. Sooner or later, I can imagine a hormone-loaded teenager asking for his girlfriend’s nude photos. If checking your child’s email might keep him or her out of legal trouble, does that make invading their privacy justified?
  3. If a parent does find a boy requesting naked photos from your daughter, how would you handle it?
  4. Did the authorities in Pennsylvania, who charged the girls and boys for exchanging photos, do the right thing or go too far?
  5. How would you handle electronic bullying of your child?

For myself, I expect the answer will flow from how my relationship evolves with my children. I want my kids to think for themselves and feel that my wife and me, trust them.

At the same time, I’ve learned all to well over the years how powerful predatory adults and teens can be. Can I afford not to spy on my daughter’s digital communications? And if I do, will that make her more secretive and prone to disobey in stealth?

Boy, I’m sure glad I have a few more years before facing this one.

11 thoughts on “How Much Privacy Should
Parent’s Grant Kids’ Digital Life?

  1. Summer

    So when I was in high school I had an email – this was way back when they were new. My parents had the password. I felt weird about it but I knew they were looking out for me. So I did all the things they didn’t want me to in person or on chat – why put it in email where they could catch me and hold it over me?
    I also had a cell – my boyfriends parents actually had a car phone – remember those? I could only use it to call approved numbers and only took it with me when I drove, in case of an accident.
    Now I was a dream child as a teenager, even if my parents didn’t realize it until the other 3 got older. They eventually all had emails and cells.
    I caught my sister with porn on her computer – she was 15 or 16 at the time (she’s all growed up and married now). *I* didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. I’m sure my parents would have felt differently.
    I don’t have kids, and I don’t have the right to say a thing about how anyone raises theirs. I know that my parents snooping over my shoulder left me feeling like they didn’t trust me, made me less likely to go to them with issues, and more likely to hide things. I think, as the older sister of 3, my siblings came to me more then they ever went to our/their parents.
    Open communication from early on is what prevented me from engaging in risky behavior as a teen. My mom had the sex talk early, I knew drugs were bad, and alcohol dangerous before I hit 7th grade. I was a fairly responsible teen too in that regard – having 1 beer in high school and few in college, no sex until college, and waiting until I was actually mature enough to be responsible for my actions.
    My answer, I think if I were a parent, would be A. Let her show you before you ask to see it.
    You wanna know what going on in your kids lives? Talk early. Talk honestly. Talk often.

  2. chase Conway

    My son is only 15 months old and I have already had thoughts of what this is going to be like when he is of age. Its scary stuff! I love the site, you write about some cool stuff.

  3. brettdl

    Summer: My instinct is right along with yours. I guess it will require a lot of faith in my own abilities as a parent.
    Chase: Thanks. Good luck with the blog.

  4. Mark

    I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer for this sort of thing. I was in college before internet and email use became widespread, and my mom, God bless her, has trouble with anything more technologically advanced than a toaster, so I knew there was no danger of her discovering any of my email or websurfing habits. But she certainly was an expert and finding things I stashed under the mattress or deep inside my dresser, and it irritated the heck out of me as a fairly typically surly, moody teenager and I swore I’d never snoop on my own kids.
    Now, living with another typically surly, moody teenage stepson that I have very little say over and a toddler that hopefully I will, I’m probably swinging back the other direction. A little snooping probably doesn’t hurt — not necessarily because you do a good or a bad job as a parent. But because sometimes even good kids don’t have the best judgement and will forget to mention or outright lie about things they don’t want you to know about, regardless of whether you probably SHOULD know about them. You don’t necessarily need to act on everything, but it’s a good idea to know about it. IMO.

  5. Jody

    I will probably err on the side of monitoring, and limiting access, but I haven’t thought through all of this clearly yet.
    I would also add, girls will be girls. If the NYTimes magazine story about female sexuality wasn’t all BS, women in our culture are aroused by the idea of being desired. I happen to think the culture feeds and nurtures that concept, but regardless, plenty of teenage girls may choose for themselves to send erotic photos of themselves. Teenage sexual awakening is not simply a story about boys “who just gotta have it,” after all.

  6. brettdl

    I agree that you can only go so far in keeping teens from being teens. I suppose over the years I’ll go too far in one direction, then too far the other way.
    BTW, I’ve been trying to find time to read the NYT piece. Is it worth it or a waste of time?

  7. AJ

    Simple outlook for me. If you don’t trust your kid with the product, don’t give the product to your kid. At 13, a kid is likely to be dependent upon you for paying for such things.
    For a 13-year-old, I’m straining to conceive of a critical need for a cell phone beyond just peer pressure. We as a species somehow survived before cell phones were invented.

  8. brettdl

    I think that’s a good way of looking at: only give kids products their mature enough to handle.
    As for cell phones: I lean against them, at least early on, too. Then again, they are a nice safety feature.


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