Dear Dr. Wes and Samantha: Is it OK to read my daughter’s text messages without her knowledge? Do parents have the right to ask for access to Facebook accounts?
Samantha: All parents have the right to see their children’s Facebook accounts and text messages. First, parents usually pay for their children’s phones, calling/texting plans, computers and Internet access, so they have a right to the items. Second, it is a parent’s job to keep teens safe, and checking up online activity is part of that job.
Don’t get me wrong. Parents should not make a new hobby of creeping around their teens’ Facebook pages. If they haven’t broken the rules before, they have no reason to secretly check out their teens’ Facebook profiles or text messages. Parents don’t need to ask for their teens’ passwords and read their conversations. Instead, they should just ask their teens who they are chatting with and what they are chatting about. They should also feel free to look over their teens’ shoulders from time to time. Parents should try to be umbrellas, sheltering their kids from bad elements when needed.
As a general rule, laptops and computers should be kept in a common area of the home so parents can better monitor their teens. Also, disable all built-in Web cams if possible. Hackers can turn on a Web cam and watch computer users at any time. If the computer has a Web cam and it can’t be disabled, put a sticker over the lens when your teen isn’t using it.
Ideally, parents should set these rules when their teens first become Internet users. If parents have not set these rules already, it’s not too late. Parents have the authority to make new rules at any time, especially concerning their children’s safety.
If your teen has already broken your rules before, asking for her Facebook password is reasonable. Checking her Facebook and texts about twice a week will help you stay on top of her habits. Remember to check her inbox, not just her profile page. The inbox is more likely to be the place where secret transactions would take place. When she proves herself more trustworthy, you can give her more privacy.
Wes: I’ll expound on Samantha’s point about starting early. It’s never too late to start a better habit or eliminate a bad one. But this topic demands some serious up-front planning and early intervention — and as little deceit as possible. The key word is “proactive,” and I don’t mean the acne cleanser. By now we’ve all had enough experience with the Internet and cell phones to understand how they work. There’s no excuse to be caught off-guard by technologies that dramatically change our children’s lives. You go from where you start, so here’s how to start.
These particular technologies represent a purposeful and deliberate violation of personal privacy. In fact, research suggests a significant shift in how teens view privacy now that their lives are out there for all the world to see. But who needs research? Just review a few teen pages that include rampant substance abuse references (with pics) and X-rated discussions of sexual exploits (with pics) to see what I mean.
So who’s left out of this exposé of everything teens think, do or say? Parents. Kids don’t want us to read the material that will be viewed and NEVER EVER erased from servers around the world, even if the account is closed. And because it’s considered private one-to-one, texting is even more dicey. When you text someone you’re creating a transcript, which takes exactly 5 seconds to forward (with pics) to anyone with a cell phone. So much for “private” communication.
We’re finally moving past the hysteria over online predators, but let me say it again. In terms of real risk exposure, parents should worry more about what kids put online than what perverts they may encounter there. Not just my opinion, but that of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. So Samantha is right, parents do have an obligation to shield kids from themselves, just as we’ve done since our species appeared on earth.
Do not wait to set these rules until your child receives the first text message, posts a provocative pose on Facebook or cuts a drug deal online. Proactive parents start when their kids first connect to Cartoon Network, Disney.com, Club Penguin, etc. They set boundaries, define the Internet as open-access (everything you see I can see, too), discuss ethical obligations, self-harm, harm to others and so on. The best adage I know comes from Spider-Man — and for true geeks, the warning at the UNIX terminal prompt. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Repeat it over and over from the first day they touch the keyboard.
Here’s just one concrete example: Cell phones and computers don’t go to bed with kids. You can have the imagination of a snail and still see why sleeping with your computer or phone is a bad idea. The first day you hand them over, do not hand over the charger. Those belong in your bedroom. If kids want the juice, they turn in the gizmo. The first day you hook your computer to the Internet, start up the parental control program that monitors usage. Don’t have one? There are lots of nice techies in town to set it up for you. Keep all this upfront and honest. That’s what it means to be proactive.
None of this will halt the progression of hormones, curiosity and questionable judgment. But when your child does start getting into trouble online or with her phone, you’ll be in a stronger position to intervene, not just react to the crisis. Hope for the best and plan for the worst. That one predates Spider-Man and UNIX.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.