Well-Being//

How Much Privacy Should Teens Have in the Digital Age?

Tips to keep you kids safe in the digital world.

By LightField Studios/Shutterstock
By LightField Studios/Shutterstock

As children get older, they begin to individuate, or develop their own unique sense of identity. As part of this normal developmental process, they begin to want more space and privacy from their parents and caregivers.

Most parents remember going through this stage themselves. But you might still feel a little uneasy, even frightened, about your teen’s increased need for privacy, especially when it comes to the internet. You love your child and want to keep them safe, and your awareness of internet predators, cyberbullying, and other online dangers can make you wonder how it’s possible to both give them privacy and ensure their safety.

There are several ways to allow your teen a measure of privacy online but still keep them safe. We offer some guidance below.

THREATS FROM THE INTERNET

If you spend any amount of time online, you’ve probably encountered plenty of articles or social media posts about the various internet dangers that can pop up. Plenty of these threats are real, but remember to keep a realistic frame of mind. For example, some people have experienced brainwashing or fallen in with cults and religious groups online, but this isn’t a common situation. It’s far more likely your child could face harassment, be pressured for sexts, or get asked for passwords.

It’s a good idea to take steps to safeguard your child against all threats while remaining mindful of the likeliest dangers, including:

  • Cyberbullying
  • Catfishing, or being tricked by someone using a false identity
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Hacked or stolen information, like credit card numbers or passwords
  • Compromised security settings or viruses
  • Automatic charges in games and other apps
  • Violent pornography

Other threats can become more relevant at certain times. For example, hate speech and racist ideology may increase in a divided political climate. Teenagers in the process of value formation and identity development may have higher susceptibility to harmful messages, sometimes without fully understanding the racism or hate behind them.

Some youth have increased vulnerability to certain threats. Children who spend a lot of time alone or don’t have many offline friends in their peer group may go online more than children with active offline social lives.

Online friends aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Some youth may not make friends easily or choose to avoid peers in their neighborhood or school for other reasons. However, these youth may be more vulnerable to catfishing or predators, so it’s important to familiarize them with online safety tips and potential red flags.

If your child plays video games online, their device may have a higher risk for compromised security. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the software or console they’re using and make sure recommended safety settings are in place.

HOW TO KEEP YOUR KIDS SAFE

Awareness is the first, and arguably the most important, step to becoming safer online. You can’t protect yourself from something if you don’t know what you’re up against. So start with some frank communication about the potential dangers of the internet.

Your teen may roll their eyes and say, “I know.” And chances are, they do know. Research has found evidence to suggest many teenagers are very aware of potential online threats and take steps to protect themselves.

If your teen responds in this way, play to their knowledge. Say something like, “I bet you do know! You spend more time online than I do. I’m still learning, and I want to keep all of us, and our devices, safe. What should I know about? How do you keep yourself safe online?”

Or turn it into a game. See who can come up with the longest list of threats and a precaution against each. It doesn’t matter how you increase your—and their—knowledge. What matters is that you’re both aware of what you’re facing and how to safeguard against it.

Make sure they know you’re aware cyberbullying happens and that, if they come to you after being victimized, you’ll do whatever you can to help them. Teens are more likely to open up if they trust you, so remind them they have your unconditional support.

Your teen may resist rules around technology use, especially for their smartphones, but some limits are important. These limits may vary based on your personal feelings about technology and your household setup. Here are some rules you might consider:

  • Restricting bedroom phone use, especially at bedtime. Making bedrooms device-free can benefit your teen’s sleep as well as their safety.
  • Encouraging them to avoid using public WiFi networks for banking or making purchases.
  • Creating periodic check-ins with your child to examine their installed apps and software (without reading their messages, looking at their photos, or sifting through other private content).
  • Teaching them to recognize suspicious emails or phishing scams.
  • Limiting data and texting through your service provider. Research suggests this may prevent sexting more effectively than random phone checks.
  • Setting guidelines around the type of content they can post publicly on social media or making sure they only “friend” people they actually know.
  • Following and friending them on social media to quietly monitor potential threats or harassment.
  • Having them leave their passwords in a sealed envelope so you can access their device if anything happens.

Your rules will likely also vary depending on the age of your teen. A 17-year-old using Instagram may be less concerning than a 12-year-old using the same app, so you may set more restrictive limits for the younger child.

Older teens tend to have more awareness of possible hazards of the internet and may be practiced at keeping information private and following safety precautions online. You may also feel more readily able to trust teens who demonstrate responsibility in other areas of their life.

WHY CYBER-SNOOPING OFTEN BACKFIRES

Worries about the dangers of the internet may lead some parents to heavily monitor their teen’s online use. For example, a parent who fears their teen is sexting might believe it’s safest to secretly look through their phones or go through their online history. Some parents might read through their teen’s text exchanges without their knowledge or permission.

Children, especially teenagers, need space. When adults deny them developmentally appropriate privacy, teens may react by shutting their caregivers out completely.

These behaviors, though often carried out with good intentions, can have negative consequences for the relationship a parent has with their teen. Children, especially teenagers, need space. When adults deny them developmentally appropriate privacy, teens may react by shutting their caregivers out completely. They may also find other ways to get their privacy.

Think of it this way: Many parents feel as if their teenagers know more about digital technology than they do. If you’re among this group, do you doubt your internet-savvy teen’s ability to get around your restrictions? Instead of getting in their digital space, create a home environment of trust and support by making your child aware of possible dangers, then trusting them to come to you when they need help.

REBUILDING TRUST

You might struggle to allow your teen privacy online if they’ve previously enjoyed this privacy but did something to violate your trust. It’s not helpful to completely deny them privacy, but if they’ve behaved in unsafe ways online, you may need to temporarily increase your restrictions as a consequence.

You might, for example, allow them to only use their phone when you’re also present. You might also insist they do homework on a family computer instead of a laptop in their bedroom. But it’s also essential they have the opportunity to earn back trust, especially when they show remorse and a willingness to learn from their mistake. A pattern of improved behavior, including increased trustworthiness and responsibility around the house, at school, and with siblings, can demonstrate a teen is ready to earn back privacy.

If your teen has caught you snooping in their phone or computer, they may respond by withdrawing from you. You’ll need to earn back their trust if you want them to feel comfortable coming to you with concerns in the future.

It can help if you:

  • Acknowledge the privacy violation.
  • Explain why you felt you needed to look at their phone (without blaming your teen for your own behavior).
  • Apologize.
  • Make a commitment not to snoop unless you believe they’re in serious or imminent danger.

Rebuilding trust in a family can take time, and it isn’t always something you can do alone. A family therapist can help you work together to find solutions if you’re struggling with trust and boundaries.

We are becoming ever more dependent on technology, and children aren’t exempt. Letting children and teens roam the anonymous digital world can trigger just as much nervousness and fear as letting them walk out the door alone. Accept that your teens will test their limits, as this is part of growing up. But when you offer trust, treat them with respect, and engage in frequent, open communication, you can make sure they’re stepping across the lines of childhood in healthy ways, not dangerous ones.

Originally published on GoodTherapy.

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