When it comes to my teens’ online activity, safety trumps privacy every time

The greater good.
The greater good.
Image: Pabak Sarkar/Flickr
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When I first gave my children smartphones, I was honestly quite naive about how much these small devices would change they way they interact with the world. I wasn’t prepared to navigate issues like cyberbullying and sexting, issues I had no idea had become so prevalent so quickly.

But now I know better. Our children are growing up in an environment that’s completely foreign to us. Their entire world is larger and more connected than ever before, and nothing we learned as children can prepare us to deal with raising teens in the digital age.

I learned that lesson the hard way, and it forced me to look for a tool that would allow me a peek into my kid’s digital lives. When I couldn’t find one, I helped create my own: the smartphone monitoring tool TeenSafe. Today, I spend much of my time educating parents about the “Digital Divide.” One concern I hear repeated again and again is whether or not it’s fair for parents to “invade [their] child’s privacy” by monitoring their computer or smartphone activity.

Let me be clear: I honestly don’t believe parents are invading much of anything when they ask for the information that will help keep their teens safe, both online or off. At the same time, I strongly believe that privacy is a privilege, not a right, and I don’t believe that a child’s wish for privacy ever trumps our need to protect and care for them.

One has only to look at the headlines to see why. Take the case of Erin Gallagher, who killed herself when she was 13 years old. Shortly before her suicide attempt, Erin posted a message to social media threatening to take her own life, but tragically her parents never saw it. Erin’s case is far from unique: the potentially harmful effects of the digital world are easily obscured by their flashier benefits. It’s become all too easy to forget the dangerous potential of that oh-so-convenient electronic device.

While statistics vary, some advocacy groups report that as many as half of all US teens will be the victims of cyberbullying. That same study estimated that 10% are likely to have embarrassing photos taken of them without their permission. The phenomenon of sexting adds a whole new layer to the issue—in Iowa, six teenagers were arrested and charged with misdemeanors after forwarding on a sext without the female subject’s permission. Clearly, there’s still a huge disconnect between teens’ perceptions of their behavior and what the law says about it.

Ultimately, if you wouldn’t let a teen do something offline (like mail pictures of themselves to someone neither they nor you had ever met in person), you shouldn’t allow them to do it online. The only way to have an accurate understanding of what’s really happening online is if you actively monitor what they’re doing.

At the same time, I do believe trust is one of the most important aspects of the parent-teen relationship. These two principles—my desire to protect my children and my desire to build a trusting relationship—do not have to be mutually exclusive. Indeed, both my children were aware of the tool as I was helping to create it. My daughter, who was nearing her graduation from high school, even agreed to let me monitor her. She eventually went on to speak about value of parental smartphone supervision at the National PTA Youth Leadership Summit last summer. I couldn’t be more proud.

While it would be nice to live in a world where this new technology didn’t open our children up to new risks, the truth is that it does. As a mother, it’s my job to do everything I can to protect my children and to give them the guidance to flourish and grow. In the end, I know they’ll thank me for it.