Dear Dr. Wes & Kendra: At the end of the semester, (my son’s) school contacted me because I hadn’t responded to several emails. To make a long story short, I found out my son had hacked my email account and was preventing me from getting them. I know what to do (change my password and hand out the consequences) but I thought you could let other parents know that the issue of who is spying on whom can go both ways where today’s kids are concerned.
Kendra: Your son is seeking to block emails from the school, not to read your personal emails. Your teen hacker desires space and privacy. Whether that’s deserved or not, it appears he wasn’t necessarily trying to spy. He was simply deleting emails informing you about absences or grades he didn’t want you to view.
Although hacking into a parent’s computer reflects a change in technology, in a way it’s no different than students of my parents’ generation beating Mom and Dad to the mailbox on report card day.
This, however, begs the question: How much space should teens get when it comes to school or anything else? That will vary greatly. For example, trustworthy teens may earn a little more space, while those who lie and are disrespectful may need more restriction.
Either way, both teens and parents need to work as a team to set reasonable standards for the teen to meet, and if the teen fails to do so, parents must be clear that consequences include a closer watch by the parent.
Although some teens may want to spy on their parents, most want little to do with their parents’ lives. They live in their own teenage world, usually with a “keep out” sign on the door.
Wes: This happens more often than you think, and while I agree with Kendra’s analysis of your son’s intentions, I think you have to take more decisive action. He needs to understand that hacking your email is seriously unethical.
If he feels you’re being too overbearing about school, that’s a worthwhile discussion to have. I’ve often said that parents need to let kids fail a bit in high school, so they know how to succeed in college. Following your kid’s every move and nagging him won’t help a struggling teen achieve self-regulation.
Instead, offer sustainable financial incentives for good effort or good outcomes, whichever seems to be the problem. Then let your son take responsibility for his own success.
By hacking your email, however, your son is taking an underhanded approach to a legitimate issue and basically avoiding the necessary conflict altogether. It’s actually worse than grabbing the grades from the mailbox. When kids used to do that, they didn’t also seize their parents’ divorce settlement, IRS tax audit, work product, or sexy lingerie catalog. Well, maybe they swiped the catalog.
Your email reveals everything you are, and, given the nature of spam, many things you are not. Even if in some bizarre universe your son argued that he had a right to intercept his educational information, he cannot argue a right to breech your privacy in everything else.
I think you should help your teen develop some empathy for how this feels.
Ask if he minds you returning the favor of hacking by monitoring his phone. I’m holding a letter that came a few weeks before yours in which a parent shared with me an iPhone app that will literally turn your child’s smartphone into a super spy device, including flipping on the mic so you can listen in.
Ask if he’d have any problem with you switching this app on from time to time just to intercept any drug deals he might be doing.
Of course in the process, you might inadvertently learn a lot about his location, love life, friend group, and everything else he says and does. If he doesn’t mind this violation of his privacy and integrity, email me. I’ll forward the link.
If, instead, he understands just how grim it would be to have you monitoring every moment of his life by remote control, he’ll have learned something important. He’ll also learn that where technology is concerned, there’s always a bigger, smarter guerilla waiting in the wings. So, kids and parents, hack not ‘lest you be hacked.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.