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Our kids’ idea of privacy is changing: Why we shouldn’t let it

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Eighty to 85 percent of middle schoolers have their own mobile device. And it's changing more than we bargained for.

When I first started dating in 1991, as a freshman in high school, I had about as much experience as Peyton Manning has at sitting on the bench. Not only was I clueless, but I quickly realized that I was intimidated by the thought of officially “going out.”

High on my list of reservations were the phone conversations in between dates to keep the relationship going. But, one night, I decided it was time to make a call on one of the landlines (since there was no other option) in the upstairs bedroom, which I shared with my two younger brothers. At any time, the privacy I desperately desired could have been shattered by a sibling coming in. Needless to say, the conversation wasn’t long and I didn’t say anything “gushy” that I was worried about my brothers or parents overhearing.

Twenty-five years later, the landscape is starkly different: 80 to 85 percent of middle schoolers have their own smartphone or tablet. Gone are the days when conversations were face to face, over a communal landline, or in notes passed or sent in different ways. Most kids today can’t fathom the idea of being unable to instantly send a message to someone else through these media.

Since when did privacy become a right?

Not surprisingly, along with these big tech innovations is a change in the way our kids perceive their right to privacy, and what the word privacy even means. When I was growing up, my friends and I assumed that any type of direct conversation other than face-to-face might be overheard by our parents or siblings. Yet kids today assume that they have a right to have (and house) conversations, messages, and pictures without their parents monitoring this activity. Recently, one of my young patients asked me what he thought was an obvious question: Whether or not I thought his parents (who were in the room) had a right to see his Facebook or Twitter posts, which happened to be quite explicit. When I responded matter-of-factly that I thought they did (for multiple reasons that I later explained), he seemed befuddled. Like many of his friends, he perceived a right, not a privilege, to full privacy—even if these interactions remained online for good, and could be transmitted far and wide for anyone to see.

The obvious, yet often neglected, reality is: Kids living in the year 2017 have no more right to privacy than kids living in 1987, 1967, or even before. Technology has simply allowed for it without any real discussion of whether it should be. And as more kids believe in greater privacy, and  exercise it through the use of password-protected devices (ironically paid for by their parents), parents lose the ability to monitor and provide feedback for kids’ actions. These days, we don’t just have to worry about where they are, and what they are saying and doing, when they are away from home. Now we have to worry where they are in cyberspace, and what they are saying or doing even when they are in the same room.

Our kids need us more today than ever

Even little kids deserve a certain level of privacy. We should all get to have a private place that exists in the caverns of our own minds. As children grow older and socialize, it is important that they learn how to interact without expecting that everything they say will be heard and scrutinized by adults. Ultimately, it’s a balance between protection and trust. When we let our kids be certain places, part of the growing process for them (and us) is learning how to manage what they say, or else they will often suffer natural, unpleasant consequences. Most of the time kids should be given the right to grow up in this way.

But the social media driven world we live in now may be taking this idea to an unhealthy extreme. Most people over 30 have grown up realizing that there are differences between what we might say in person, and what we might say in a chat room, text, or Facebook thread, whether anonymously or not. Today, though, kids are faced with many tempting options to instantly say what they feel or think without always understanding the potential consequences. Safe to say, our youth need us today more than ever when it comes to navigating the communication superhighway.

A parent’s right to know—and act

I am fully aware that there are certain unhealthy, threatening circumstances that kids may face in their own home when it comes to their parents finding out that they are having sex, or are pregnant (or have impregnated someone). I realize that well-intentioned practitioners and doctors may feel that they are shielding kids in these situations from a harsh, and even potentially harmful, reality if the parent(s) or guardians were to find out. I also realize that if tweens and teens don’t have a confidential option, many people worry they may resort to unhealthy or drastic means.

But if you are like me, it makes me angry to think that I could be left out of one of the, if not the, most important decisions of my child’s life. Just like the issue of smartphones and texting, somewhere along the line it seems that we began to ignore the huge body of research that indicates our adolescents’ brains are far from being developed, and the parents in our communities must be involved in critical decisions that occur with our children. As big a risk as some may think it is to take away confidentiality about a young person’s reproduction and sexuality, I think the bigger societal risk is taking the parents out of the equation in the first place. Simply because certain parents do not exercise their authority properly, or certain adolescents act inappropriately, should not mean that all parents could be potentially stripped of their right to know, and then act, as a parent when the time comes.

A world of tall fences

In some ways, it makes more sense that we should grant kids of a certain age all medical decision-making rights (not that I’m suggesting this!) than just those that involve reproduction and sexuality. Isn’t it odd that a knee injury or depression necessitates parent-adolescent communication while the decision to end a pregnancy does not? In my office, even though I afford teens the right to privacy in our conversations, I legally cannot see a 17-year-old until his or her parents’ consent and am ethically required to inform parents in situations of clear harm (such as suicidal thoughts) regardless of how uncomfortable it may be.

We live in a privatized society. Tall fences abound in many places. Caller ID and password protection is the name of the game. Opinions vary. I would love to know yours. But in the meantime, my wife and I only have 18 legally sanctioned years to offer guidance and advice to our kids about how to live the hopefully 60+ years that follow. We want them to learn how to think and reason on their own. But if our attempts to love and teach them as we see fit are increasingly trumped by the value of privacy and confidentiality, then our influence will only continue to wane. Once our children leave our house, they have a lifetime to be as private as they want assuming they abide by the laws of the land. But while they are living in our home, we simply can’t afford to accept the terms of privacy being put forth today. Do you feel the same way?

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