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Why Your Teen Has Not Earned Smartphone Privacy | ScreenStrong

Stop second-guessing yourself. Don’t be the last to know what your teen is posting online. 

Let’s pretend that we are sitting in a room together. Your teen left her phone on the coffee table and walked out. Would you feel comfortable with me picking it up and reading all of her social media posts? Would you mind me seeing all of her group texts, photos, and videos? Even her secret accounts that you have never seen? Probably not. You don’t feel comfortable with your teen having smartphone privacy because you know that your daughter is not perfect. Teens make mistakes. There is a high probability that she has posted something or is following someone that may be a little—or a lot—inappropriate. 

Parents are torn between protecting teens or trusting them.

We often think of trustworthiness like we think of guilt. We want to assume that someone is innocent until proven guilty. Parents want to assume that their kids are trustworthy until proven untrustworthy. Parents find themselves torn between wanting to protect their teens and wanting to trust them.

We instinctively know our kids are immature. The online world is brutal, but we feel pressure to treat them like adults in ways they are not prepared for. Magazines and talk shows tell us that only helicopter parents read their teen’s texts and posts. Even our friends say their kids have earned online privacy. We feel pressure to keep up with everyone else. To trip up our conscience even more, our kids insist that if we love them, we will give them smartphone privacy and trust them to be responsible and safe online. Don’t all these voices make a good point?

These arguments miss the mark in a few important ways. They fail to consider the science of childhood brain development and maturity. They fail to appreciate the public nature of the online world. And they fail to recognize the proper role that parents play in leading their children as they develop in healthy ways. Unpacking each of these ideas a little more will show why parents should ignore the voices telling them to give their kids online privacy. In truth, parents have a duty to ensure they know what their teens are doing online. 

3 reasons your teen has not earned smartphone privacy—yet.

1. Teens are not ready to be trusted.

Online privacy has nothing to do with anything your child has or has not done to earn your trust.  Science tells us that teen brain development is a process that doesn’t happen overnight and can’t be rushed. We think teens are mature and can be trusted because we see glimpses of maturity and good intentions. We compare granting privacy with online privileges to other teen rites-of-passage like driving a car or extending a curfew. But like faulty brakes on a car, the executive function of a teen’s brain can’t be completely trusted yet to manage all of the adult complexities of the online world. Teens are apprentice adults and we hurt them when we treat them like fully mature adults. You don’t trust them to always make good judgments on screens because they are not ready to be trusted. It’s that simple.

If you ask seasoned parents who have already raised teenagers if teens should have privacy and be trusted online, the answer will likely be no. They may say something like, “You love your teens very much, but you don’t trust them and that is okay.” Tom Kersting, teen therapist and author of the book Disconnected, says, “It is not my job as a parent to trust my teens, it is their job however to learn to trust me.”  

2.  Nothing is private online.

Every online platform is a public place, which means nothing shared online can ever truly be considered private. Even posts in private chat rooms can become public very easily. Parents often show me screenshots of “private posts” from their teen’s friends that obviously aren’t very private. Your child will be held accountable for his online activity when he gets a job, has a boss, and gets married. It is ironic and unfortunate that during a stage of development when teens need the most accountability, they often have the least when it comes to their activity online. 

Since nothing is truly private online, parents should realize that everything their teens do online can potentially haunt them for the rest of their lives. They should take seriously the responsibility to help manage their teen’s use of online platforms and they should never be the last to know what their kids are posting.

3.  Parents must know what their kids are doing online in order to teach them well.  

Just like it is impossible to train your child to drive a car without supervising from the passenger seat, there is no way to train your child to be smart online if you are not privy to what they are doing in that world. Like good coaches do for their players, parents must pay attention to their kids’ actions so they can encourage and redirect them when they struggle.

The online world is an adult world. As with other adult privileges, our kids are anxious to experience many things before they are ready. Have you ever watched a toddler walking around in her mom’s high heel shoes? She stumbles and falls because the shoes are too big for her. Teens crave the “adult shoes” of the internet but they do not have the executive function skills—impulse control, time management, self-monitoring—needed to balance those cravings. 

The internet is too much for teens to manage and the consequences of mismanagement are serious. They will stumble and fall and they will likely hurt others in the process. Parents who are afraid to monitor what their kids are doing online have lost not only valuable teaching opportunities for their own teens, but they are responsible for the potential pain their teens are inflicting on others. Your teen has not earned smartphone privacy, they are not old enough and they need to slow down.

The other side of this problem is that the apps teens are using can often encourage troubling behavior or expose them to dangerous influences. In a very real way, your absence from their online lives leaves teens vulnerable to outside forces that only want to capitalize on your child’s time and attention—by using any content necessary.

What kind of privacy is beneficial for teens?

Building friendships is an important part of developing adequate social skills and parents should respect that process. Teens do need privacy with their friends in person and on voice phone calls. They need to grow those friendships without their parents being in the middle of that process. Teens do need to write down private thoughts in a journal or diary they keep under their bed. But when teens begin to share private content online the privacy rules change. Discussing the location for the next movie night on a group text is appropriate but sharing gossip is not. In addition, the more private details your teen shares in the public online world about her life the more vulnerable and anxious she will become.

Smartphone privacy does not make your teen more mature.

There is a myth that says that “We must allow smartphone autonomy in order to train teens to navigate it well on their own; they must be prepared for future use.” While this idea that our kids need exposure and practice can certainly apply to appropriate activities like piano, sports, chores, or driving a car, it breaks down when we try to apply this principle to activities that are toxic in nature or that are truly beyond their current stage of development.

When your child practices piano, sports, or building a spreadsheet, they get better. But when they practice an activity that is harmful or requires a set of skills that is developmentally impossible for them to possess (e.g. drinking, posting on social media, group texts) they don’t get better at managing that activity, but in fact they may regress.

Giving kids privacy on their screens does not speed up their maturity or increase their trustworthiness. We should instead be giving them more time to mature, and more responsibility in real-life activities. This will help them develop the executive function skills they will need to manage the online world down the road.  

Make the tough choice, go counter-culture.

Raising kids today is hard work. Raising healthy kids takes time, patience, and doing difficult things. Often it requires that we go against culture when the culture is ignoring common sense or is propagated by the interests of companies and content creators that want to separate you from your teen.

If you choose to allow your teen to have a smartphone, you should have full access to it. Most teens spend more time online each day than they do sleeping. You will need to invest a significant amount of time from your day monitoring their activity. 

If this sounds exhausting to you (it does for me), there is an alternative. Choose a non-internet phone and delay smartphones and social media accounts altogether until late adolescence. By then, your kids have hopefully matured enough to manage screen media on their own. When you choose to live ScreenStrong, there is no more guessing. You have increased the odds that your teen will experience less stress, anxiety, and fewer conflicts with you and others. Many ScreenStrong Families look back on this choice as one of the best parenting decisions they’ve ever made.

You’ve got this! Solving the teen smartphone privacy dilemma is easier than you think. The next time your teen argues that you don’t trust them on their phone don’t get on the emotional rollercoaster with them. Instead, be the coach and leader they need you to be. Put a big smile on your face and say, “You are correct sweetie. I don’t trust teenagers, but I have your back and I love you more than you will ever know!” 

If your teen’s smartphone use is causing stress in your home and you are ready to hit the pause button we can help! Learn how to stop the screen conflicts and arguments in your home and take the ScreenStrong Challenge today. From education to support and practical tips to get your kids off their video games and smartphones, we have the solutions.  Stand up for your kids and stand out from the crowd. Become a ScreenStrong family today.