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Privacy, secrets, computers


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A father suggested: “Stay out of their rooms after puberty. Stay out of their friendships and love-life unless invited in....” (Robert Fulghum in It Was on Fire When I Lay Down On It).

Opposite to Fulghum some people urge parents to search their teen’s rooms to find what they may be hiding. They suggest being intrusive into teen’s friendships and love life. They tell parents to spy into what internet sites their children visit and for how long, and what chat rooms they visit and what goes on there. Software used by businesses to spy on their employee's e-mail is suggested for spying on your teens. Recent software can tell you "in real time" what your teen is doing on the internet.

To understand privacy we must be dialectic, that is, we must understand two different views, and find the balance that is best for both views — a balance that may change. On one side are teens like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine high school, who had incriminating stuff in their rooms that their parents didn't see. Their parents apparently showed no interest in what their teens did. On the other, we want some diaries, journals, or notes to be private. We resent anyone intruding into certain areas of our lives. The reality is if teens want private papers, they will have them, keeping them hidden from parents at safe places or the homes of friends — and browse the internet with friends. As we increasingly respect their privacy, that may help us build trust between parent and teen so they may share more of themselves.

Parents being intrusive creates confrontation similar to police and suspect in which trust between parent and child is eroded. Two teens who shot fellow students at school were caught. When interviewed, they said they felt they had no adult whom they could trust.

What is healthy privacy?
Privacy for our teen’s means respect for them and for their personhood. It is respect for their maturing into responsible persons who soon will have to stand alone and make their way. Privacy means we trust them. We can work with them to learn respect and interdependence.

When you have concerns about areas of your teen’s lives that you do not know about, face two facts. First, as they mature, there may be increasing things you don't know about. Second, talk with them about your concerns, and why you are concerned. Bring them into solving your problem. The worst that can happen is parents are involved with their teens by actions of the criminal justice system. If you can head off a problem before the criminal justice system intrudes, then all of you are ahead, and probably your teen knows this, and can be willing to help you cope with your concerns.

Many teens will welcome you into their rooms. When in their rooms, think about their objects, posters, and whatever may offer clues about your child's feelings. Use these to explore with your child one-with-one as a way to share in your child's maturing. Be very patient, allow silence, watch body language, and listen.

As I said about sex and drugs, do not use fear but rather facts. The facts are sufficient. For example, face the realities that have happened in internet chat rooms, and ponder why they happened. To what extent are the victims youth who were lonely and had a hard time making friends or having relaxed conversation with friends? We need to encourage ways for each child of our's to make friends and nourish friends. This is why we parents may have frequent birthday parties, picnics, and a variety of get-togethers for each child to interact with friends. When I was an older teen, several parents invited our bunch over to their homes, moved furniture, and we jitter bugged into the night.

Control software
What about software that monitors what your teens do on the internet and those that block access to certain sites? I think the best way it can be effective is if your teens know about it and your concerns that prompt you to want to install it. You want your teens to share your concern and understand why. If they do not, they probably know more about computers than most of us do, and therefore may be able to circumvent your software. Or they evade our snooping by browsing the internet away from home.

Two ways we can explore is non private areas. Google your child's full name, then with initials, in quotes to see any web sites they created — Eric Harris had a revealing one — because sites are out there for the world to explore. Use the same to find any blogs or entries in personal software on the net. These also are out there for the world to see.

Granted it requires a lot of time, but ask your child to invite you to join in browsing or surfing the internet. Together you may find interesting and provocative sites and information. Browsing the internet together can prompt useful conversation. It takes time, but it may be the most valuable time you spend, and far better than any kind of spying on your teen.

Your goal
Your goal for your teens is they develop into responsible, mature, independent, social, trustworthy adults. How you interact with your child is an essential part of that journey. You want your child as an adult to feel free to call or e-mail home with concerns and questions, knowing from the experiences of teen years and earlier that you are an available, positive, and useful source of counsel and support and deep love.

Copyright © 2002, 2007 John F. Yeaman



Jan Janssen, Youth Diversion Officer, Ashland, Oregon, Police Department, quoted in Spirituality & Health, winter 2003, page 18.