How much privacy should your child have? That’s a question that parents and children have been debating for quite some time, but with increasing intensity over the last few decades.
As you might expect, parents vary widely in the amount of privacy they allow their children. (And the protestations of my younger son–at age 4(!)–notwithstanding, it is an allowance; children are not constitutionally entitled to the same “right to privacy” enjoyed by adults.) Some parents choose to give their children a great deal of personal space and rarely, if ever, intrude; others make it clear to their children that they should have no expectation of privacy whatsoever. In fact, I did a high presentation once with a police lieutenant who told the audience that he periodically (and unpredictably) “tossed” his 13-year-old son’s bedroom.
The debate over the scope of a child’s privacy is one thing when the discussion centers around objects and space within the home. It is another thing entirely when it involves technology that may appear private to the child (at least vis-à-vis his or her parents) but allows interaction with people outside the home. As I said in American Privacy, “privacy at its core is the ability to determine what information will be shared with others and when it will be shared.” All too often, children want to assert privacy rights in situations that are not truly private, since they give up control over the spread of their personal information; one of the challenges of parenting is helping children to understand what “private” actually means.
A recent case in Virginia underscores the tension that can exist between a child’s insistence on privacy and the responsibilities of parenting. Last February, an independent music teacher in Spotsylvania named Jay Herman Nesmith was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting one of his female students. In July, Nesmith pleaded guilty to ten counts of “custodial indecent liberties” and earlier this week, was sentenced to thirty years in prison (with twenty years suspended).
In his plea agreement, Nesmith stated that after leaving a music store in Fredericksburg, he began offering lessons in his home in 2011. The parents of the victim, then a 13-year-old oboe student, agreed to let her take lessons at his residence. Over time, Nesmith began offering the young woman massages, which in turn led to kissing and sexual intercourse in the spring of 2014. In January 2015, Nesmith invited the victim to go with him to an oboe concert at James Madison University in Harrisburg. On the way, they checked into a motel and had sex.
Something about that trip triggered suspicion in the minds of the victim’s parents. When she returned home, her parents reviewed the text messages on her phone and read her journal (it’s not clear from the media reports whether they did so with the young woman’s cooperation or while she was asleep). The messages and journal entries made it clear not only that Nesmith and the young woman were having sex, but that they were discussing the idea of running away to Oregon together.
This is a terrific potential talking point for parents and children. What are the respective expectations of privacy for text messages and journals? My position would be that a journal (actual ink on paper) is entitled to a much high level of privacy, since it is much easier for a child to control access to and distribution of the information contained in the journal (obnoxious younger siblings notwithstanding). But while far too many teens seem to treat text messages or even status updates as the equivalent of a journal, the reality is far different. First, if it’s digital, it can be copied. Second, if it can be transmitted, it can be copied, saved, and retransmitted. As others have aptly stated, digital information is almost always “public and permanent.”
The point of any conversation between parents and children about privacy is that the “right to privacy,” i.e., the ability to control one’s information, is a qualified right, the scope of which gradually expands as the child demonstrates increased maturity and responsibility regarding the creation and sharing of information (and other aspects of life as well). As that process takes place, parents have an ongoing responsibility to ensure that their children are safe and secure. Sometimes that means invading a child’s “privacy,” regardless of how strenuously they protest.
It’s not surveillance, it’s supervision.