Earning Privacy
Online

How much privacy should you give your kids online?When an issue arose at home recently, I felt compelled to open my son's email account and look through what was there, particularly the sent email. I did not enjoy it - not because of the content of the emails that I saw, but because I knew that issues of trust and respect and privacy were on the line. Those are themes I want to build with my kids, not tear down.

Angry Boy on ComputerMy son is only 13. He has no real legal expectation of privacy. But that doesn't mean he has none. The privacy line is clear on some issues for him now (for example, I'd never invade when he's in the bathroom), blurrier on others (communication among his circle of friends) and non-existent elsewhere (school and greater family issues).

Parental concern

Like many parents today, I am worried about keeping my kids safe online. We have many discussions about the kind of Internet sites that are appropriate to them, what kind of information is okay and not okay to give out, and things like that. I have parental controls set up on the family computer, and it's in a public location.

When I set my kids up with email, I set up their accounts such that copies of all incoming email is copied to my email account. I was clear with them when I did this about why I was doing it and that it was not about snooping, but safety. Most of the time I don't read the emails that are copied to me, as I haven't had reason to be concerned. I also don't mention on a daily basis that I see them; this method of oversight is blind to the kids - they eventually forget I see these emails. It's oversight without being invasive and overt. We've also been clear that computer usage aside from school work is, absolutely, a privilege - access and passwords are tightly controlled.

The cell phone and text messaging is similarly a privilege. The phone was acquired first for family communication - for his social communication second. I've been clear from the start that I can and will check text messages until I am more confident in his ability to use it appropriately.

This may seem like some really tight restrictions, and they are. But he's 13 - not 15, not 17, and definitely not a legal adult leaving home in the near future. I expect - well, hope - that as he gets older and demonstrates appropriate use of media that I can trust even more, and he'll have even more privacy.

Community standards

When I had to check my son's email recently, I told him I had done it and why. I did not hide the fact that I'd looked. He was furious with me. He declared that none of his friends have their parents checking email and text, and he was 13, after all, and deserved complete privacy.

I double-checked with some of the other moms in my - and my son's - social circle and indeed he is not the only one with this level of parental oversight. There was a range of oversight and I'd say the oversight he is getting is just about in the middle - some had more, and some had (slightly) less. I checked with the Internet use guidelines published by the school and, again, we're right in the middle of the pack there, too.

Kid by kid, age by age

Ironically, by checking my son's email I was able so determine that some of my concerns about his actions around this issue were unfounded. It actually told me that I might be able to trust him more and give him more privacy, or illusion of privacy. If I had just kept to myself that I had checked, we wouldn't have had the discussions that followed, but it turns out the discussions were necessary in and of themselves - in addition to the fact that I believe my being honest with him will help build trust in the longer term.

The ensuing discussions with my son over the next few days about the level of privacy he can expect at this age and how it can grow based on his actions were challenging. My son was still smarting from feeling like his privacy was invaded - and, honestly, I might have felt the same way if I were him - and feeling somewhat defensive. My husband and I saw this as an opportunity to review and reinforce the guidelines we had already established.

At 13, my son can expect very little online privacy. That's just the way it is. When he was 10, he had absolutely none. When he's 18 and a legal adult, he can except pretty much complete privacy. The time in between we evaluate needs and actions on a regular basis and hopefully build trust and confidence through that process. It's going to be like this for each of our kids, and each will be evaluated differently based on individual actions, personality, and so on. There will be successes and failures along the way, I'm sure.

Building trust and providing electronic privacy in an increasingly online world is challenging to say the least, and especially when the Internet itself is not anonymous and technology is changing every day. Vigilant communication, appropriate oversight, and constant reevaluation of the situation are the ongoing themes. One day it will all come together for my son. Until then, he is only 13.


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