I was raised to never, ever open someone else’s mail. And I don’t. Even letters to my husband or children that I know contain information that is really meant for me sit on the kitchen counter until their intended recipient gets home and opens the envelope.
But electronic communication? Momma never said anything about that.
And so I confess: I have spied on my children’s email, their text messages and Facebook chats. At first it wasn’t really spying, because I told them I would do it. I let my oldest son have a Facebook account just before he started middle school so that he could keep in touch with a best friend who had moved to Nepal. For nearly a year, his only Facebook friends were the kid who moved away, his mother and me. When my boys got a laptop to share, I told them that I’d do “spot checks” from time to time and that they could not close the screen or the computer when I walked into the room. The same rule applied to their cellphones and their texts.
They didn’t really mind, because they were in that stage of development somewhere between having to narrate your every waking thought to your mother and refusing to tell her even the most mundane facts of your daily existence. And I didn’t spot-check often; life is too short to comb through how little a 12-year-old can say in eighty or ninety text messages with a friend.
When my older son started sixth grade, I went to a lecture at the middle school on internet safety. The school social worker went over the general rules that parents should underscore with their children. She urged parents to learn about the most popular social media sites. And then she said that as children approach and enter high school, parents should not spy on their children’s texts or Facebook pages. “It will erode your child’s trust in you,” she said, adding that teens annoyed by being spied on will probably just create new social media accounts that their parents don’t know about.
The room imploded.
Some parents looked sheepish, suddenly embarrassed about snooping around their children’s Facebook pages. Others were furious; how dare this social worker tell them not to keep tabs on what their children were doing and saying online. One indignant woman stood up and said “I pay for the computer. I pay for the phones. It’s my house, and in my house there is NO privacy until you are 18 years old!” Others said they felt they had a responsibility to protect their children from being victimized on the internet by cyber-bullies or internet predators or from getting themselves into serious trouble by sharing things they shouldn’t. Some agreed that nothing brings home the point that the internet is never truly private like knowing that Big Mother is watching.
At the time, I was a parent of a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader whose internet activity was minimal. I told myself that when they got older, I would respect their privacy. I remembered talking on the phone for hours when I was a teenager, stretching the cord across the hall and into my room and closing the door; I certainly hadn’t wanted my mother picking up and listening in. Why should I do essentially the same by looking at my sons’ written messages with friends?
And yet. It’s not that easy. Nothing, in fact, piques a parent’s curiosity — and suspicion — like having their teenager unfriend them on Facebook. Trust me, I know. Which brings me to the occasional “glancing” at a Facebook page left open on my son’s computer. I know I’m not alone — a survey earlier this year by the security software company AVG Technologies found that 60 percent of U.S. parents of teenagers have looked at their kids’ social accounts without their knowledge. And moms are most likely to be the ones doing the spying.
It’s possible that fear — of cyber-bullying, or internet predators, or the thought (gasp) of your own child sexting — is what drives parents to snoop. But I think it’s more than that. I think parents are driven by the desire to know more about a child who, in becoming an adolescent, has become frustratingly unknowable, who is so eager to push us out. How easy to just click our way back in.
My older son is starting high school in the fall. He has never been particularly open about his thoughts and feelings, but lately it seems the more I ask, the less he answers. Snooping may have seemed, at times, like a shortcut. But it’s not. I know that wherever spying takes me, it won’t take me to a trusting and honest relationship with my son. I can’t say that if I ever have a real reason to suspect he is in trouble that I won’t sacrifice his privacy. But without probable cause, I am going to have to trust that he is innocent, that all he is doing on Facebook is growing up.
What about you? Have you ever spied on your teenager? How much privacy do your children have?
Image via NancyDrewSleuth.com