Is it Ever OK to Read Your Kids' Texts?
Welcome to Survivor, in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.
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I have a 13-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. They are both going to get smartphones this summer. Neither has a social media account at the moment. I'm really struggling with what the "rules" about reading their texts should be. I know I'm their mom, and I want to keep them safe, but they're good kids, good students, and it feels like an invasion of privacy. What about when my son has a girlfriend?? Would love your (and your kids'!) thoughts on how parents can enforce boundaries and ensure safety without feeling like a power-thirsty KGB agent? Thanks.
Honestly, I can predict some of how my kids will respond to various issues: I knew they would bristle at the word “rules” in your question (they did), and I knew they would be appalled over the potential invasion of privacy (they were). But what they both immediately resented was the near-parenthetical mention of the fact that these are good kids. “I’m sorry,” the 17-year-old said, “but that’s kind of the main thing. They’re good kids. Reward them for that. If they don’t give you reason for concern, then don’t be concerned just because you feel like you’re supposed to be.”
The 14-year-old feels similarly that the main issue is character — “What we called the ‘pillars of behavior’ in fourth grade. Not rules about specific things, but guidelines for how to be in the world. If they’re nice and kind and safe, then that’s how they’re going to be on social media too.”
I’m with them on this: you don’t have to follow the generic parenting script about generic kids. These are your kids, whom you know; they are not going to get phones and turn into Damien from Omen III or a prostitute.
But there are other issues here that must be reckoned with, good kids or no. One is that social media is addictive, and kids — people in general — do not tend to be the best arbiters of their addiction. That is, despite how furious my own kids have been about rules, we did make some rules about phone use when 17 first got his, because look — it’s a phone. You’ll keep checking it, keep getting that little hit of dopamine off of a text or Snapchat dinging in. When they look you in the eye and say, “It’s not a problem. I can control it,” but their knee is jiggling up and down? They seem like the addicts that they are. Seventeen is great with his phone (14 still doesn’t have one — her choice), but we didn’t get here without some conflict and some rigorous early limit-setting.
Another issue is that there are potential safety concerns, especially for girls. Seventeen says that he’s never, ever had a creepy or even unpleasant social media experience (he Snapchats mostly, texts, I’m not sure what else), but admits that some of his female friends have. “They post a picture of themselves in a bikini, maybe, and someone flirts in an... uh... unpleasant way.” (I shudder to think what this “unpleasant flirting” involves.) “But I don’t think that monitoring is the solution,” he was quick to add. “The opposite, in fact. Building trust is. You want your kids to know that they can come to you if anything is weird or creepy — that you’re a resource and that they won’t have to reveal that they’ve broken some rule you made. That would get in the way of them coming to you.”
“Like when I got that porn virus on the computer!” 14 announces, referring to the night her dad and I got home, and she met us at the door, stressed, to announce, “I was taking a Hamilton quiz online and I got a porn virus! It was like ‘Which Schuyler sister would you be?’ and then: PORN VIRUS!” It had just been a phishing thing — a scammy naked pop-up — and we were quick to reassure her that it was no big deal, she’d been on a kind of dodgy site, and she’d been smart not to click on it. But I think it’s wise to talk to your kids about what kinds of things might happen and what they might want to do in response: phishing, porn, bullying, inappropriateness, creepiness. Worse too, I’m sure.
“Make sure they don’t feel any pressure to be polite to assholes,” is how 17 put it. “If someone’s being a dick? Block them. Done.”
Ultimately, though, trust is going to be everybody’s saving grace — now and always. “If you think anything — any rules or values or whatever — matter more than trust?” 17 says, strangely heated, “then you are seriously missing the point.”
I am inclined to agree. Look, if stuff gets weird, then you can have a conversation about what to do next. Maybe you’ll decide that you want to check out your children’s texts or whatever, and you and they will come to some agreement about what that will look like. But not secretly. Says 17, “Wanting to see what your kid is texting? That’s like wanting to listen in on their conversations. Wanting to nanny cam them when their girlfriend is over. Super-tempting! But you can’t!” Sigh. It’s true. And believe me; there’s nobody more curious than me! But I have to content myself with what they choose to tell me. And I try to make it so that they feel comfortable telling me a lot.