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Negotiating the Privacy Maze

Should parents invade their children's privacy?

How much do parents know about what their children are doing?   And how much privacy should children have?   In many ways, children act as the gatekeepers for any information parents have about what is happening in their lives.   Still, there is always a trade-off between how much children are willing to share about  their lives and how much information parents want. 

This trade-off, and the tension it  often generates, can lead to awkward confrontations, especially if children think their parents mistrust them or violated their privacy to get information.   The demand for privacy is especially strong as children become adolescents and peer pressure becomes more important than parental pressure.    As adolescents mature, they are also faced with approaching adulthood and the need for greater freedom in their lives.   All of which leads to uncomfortable boundary issues with new temptations and new rules they lay down for themselves clashing with the rules laid down by their parents. 

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At the same time, privacy concerns become more critical for adolescents than ever.   According to Sandra Petronio of Indiana University,  privacy basically involves how much control people (whether children or adults) have over information about themselves.    That also means how much control they have over property or areas they consider to be “theirs” alone (eg, “my” room, “my” diary).    These personal spaces are places where they can feel  free to be open and that increasingly includes online spaces such as social networking sites.

Establishing these personal spaces  means setting up boundaries which other people may not cross without permission.    Since that includes parents, negotiating those boundaries  is a major challenge in the parent-child relationship.   Any boundary violation, whether by a parent or sibling,  can lead to major confrontations and mistrust.    That also includes violating any secrets that a child might feel  like sharing with  friends or family.    

According to the communication privacy management theory (CPM) first proposed by Petronio,  there are different levels of privacy in families controlling how information is shared with family members.    That includes information shared between the family as a whole and outsiders, as well as how information is exchanged within the family.    While these privacy rules need to be adjusted on a regular basis (often with a lot of  turbulence along the way), they  usually work well in most families.  

As children grow older however, their opinion regarding what should or should not be shared can vary widely from what a parent finds comfortable.   Since parents assume that they have a legitimate right to know what their children are doing, resolving this conflict can involve direct questioning or more covert methods (i.e., snooping) which a child can interpret as an invasion of privacy.   

But does invading a child’s privacy lead to parents learning more about their child’s activities?.   Actually,  CPM suggests the opposite.    Adolescents often respond to having their privacy invaded by taking more stringent measures to prevent any further information from getting out.    This usually means that parents end up being less informed than ever.    When parents eavesdrop or read confidential letters, children or adolescents often regard this a personal betrayal of trust.    Whatever the justification by the parent, eroding that trust can damage their relationship with their children.

To test the link between parental privacy violations and how willing children are to share information afterward, a team of researchers at Utrecht carried out a three-year research study which was recently published in Development Psychology.    Led by Skyler Hawk and Loes Keijsers of Utrecht University’s  Adolescent Development Research Centre,   the research study  was part of a broader Dutch project looking at family relationships.     With a sample of 497 adolescents and their parents, Hawk and his colleagues  conducted questionnaires on an annual basis for three years.    The adolescents in the study were 13 years old when the study began.

The study questionnaires asked questions about privacy invasion (eg., “My parents are always nosing into my business”), need for secrecy, and parental knowledge (eg., “Do you know which friends your child hangs out with in his or her free time?” ) along with other questions about parent-child boundaries.   

As the researchers expected,  parents who invade their children’s privacy typically end up knowing less about what their children are doing since children often respond to privacy invasions with greater secrecy.   Privacy invasions also lead to greater suspicion on the part of parents that their children are keeping secrets from them although this finding seems stronger for mothers than fathers.

The study results appear to support CPM predictions about how privacy invasions are likely to affect   adolescents keeping secrets from their parents.    Adolescents usually respond to privacy violations by being more exclusive about the information they wish to share.    Though parents may justify privacy violations as a way to stay informed about what their children are doing, this strategy seems to be counterproductive in the long run.   Unfortunately, responding to privacy violations with increased secrecy is counterproductive for adolescents as well since parents typically respond with more privacy violations. 

In practical terms, privacy violations should only be considered by parents with strong suspicions that something is seriously wrong with their children.    Otherwise, violating the boundary of trust that parents and adolescents establish can undermine how they communicate and impair their future relationship.    Even when parents justify invading their children’s privacy, adolescents often feel betrayed.  This is especially true for adolescents who had a previously good relationship with parents which can make the sense of betrayal even stronger. 

While privacy violations that go undetected by adolescents can avoid the problem of betrayal, this can still have an adverse effect on the relationship parents have with their children.   When parents discover things they feel their children should have told them, the sense of betrayal can work in the opposite direction.

 In many ways,  how a family handles private information can train children in handling the thorny issues of confidentiality and discretion when they become adults living on their own.   Learning about appropriate boundaries between openness and secrecy is an important part of childhood.   The sense of betrayal resulting from a breach of those boundaries can have more far-reaching consequence than many parents realize. 

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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