No Mom, You Can't Read Your Daughter's Diary (or Texts)

Invading privacy destroys trust and makes things awkward.

Posted Feb 16, 2017

One of many things I have learned as a psychologist who studies parenting and privacy is that maintaining boundaries is a good thing.  One of the things I do as a researcher is videotape conversations between people who know each other well.  Listening in on private conversations between parents and their children, between husbands and wives, between a teenager and her boyfriend can be fascinating.  It's kept my busy for twenty years.  Living in a small town and running into those same people at Walmart or at the PTA or - heaven forbid - in my classroom can, however,  be AWKWARD.

So I was especially struck this morning when reading this query to the ethics advisor of the New York Times.  It reads, in part:

My daughter, 9, expresses her innermost thoughts, concerns, fears, hopes for her future, friend/school issues and self-reflections in a diary. I feel it is important to read it, so I can frame a guiding narrative to boost her confidence, assuage her fears, minimize and redirect negative habits, provide encouragement.

The Times ethicist advises the mother that - no matter how pure her motives - her daughter will surely be angry when she learns her mother has been snooping on her.  He argues that the daughter speaks so freely to her diary precisely because no one is looking.  Pragmatically, he goes on to say that children have grown to be adults quite happily without their parents reading their diaries.  So not only is the snooping unwarranted, but it's unnecessary.  

As someone who writes about privacy, disclosure, and sharing information, I think there's much more here to unpack.  Even in brief, there are at least three fundamental reasons why most of us would feel sneaking a peak at a private diary is wrong: it violates privacy, it violates the integrity of the child's self, and it undermines the trust that is the basis for a healthy mother:daughter relationship.  But I also bet that there are some times that most people would say that such snooping is justified - even though we might not all agree about when.

Violating Privacy

The illustration below is taken from my post on Sharing Privacy and Secrets Betrayed about rules for sharing information between friends.  In this illustration, we have a small family: daughter, mother, and father.  

Nancy Darling
Source: Nancy Darling

The daughter has information that is known only to her - information that is private.  The smallest orange ring around her represents the boundary between that which is private to her and known to others.   Breaks in that boundary (permeability) represent the fact that she shares private information with her mother.  There is a larger orange privacy boundary around information that is private to the mother:dyad dyad.  In a clear relationship, the mother will only share information with the dad in clearly understood circumstances, governed by implicit rules.  There may be broader privacy boundaries (blue) about what can be talked about inside the house and what is off limits to others.  Boundary turbulence occurs when there is confusion about the rules. For example, the mother may feel she needs to share information their daughter has told her with her husband.  

As I discuss in depth in this blog, when people violate privacy boundaries the person being violated often responds with anger.  There is a reason this is called a 'violation' of privacy: another is intruding into an area that the holder has explicitly or implicitly excluded them from.  Such violations can occur because the person - the mother for instance - asks for information that her daughter considers 'too personal'.  In the case of the writer to the Times, asking for or stealing information the holder considers private.  Violations can also occur when information is shared with one person, but passed beyond the boundaries of the relationship, in violation of privacy rules.  Even if the daughter let Mom read her diary, doesn't mean it's okay to tell Dad, her brother, or the next door neighbor.  

Violating Self

Parental control, combined with unconditional warmth, is a key feature of healthy parent:child relationships. However, the type of control is critical.  Setting rules and high behavioral standards is what good parents do.  What they don't do is to be psychologically controlling: intruding on the child's sense of self by expecting them to want what the parent wants, feel what the parent does, or believe what the parents tells them to.  In other words, regulating behavior is one thing.  Trying to regulate the self is what Brian Barber has called 'intrusive parenting'.  It is associated with a number of negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and poor parent:child relationships.  Invading the child's privacy denies the child a sense of integral self.  It erases the boundary between parent and child and takes their right to control it away.

Kids Fight Back

Parental snooping can also BACKFIRE.  More than a decade of research has shown us that not only is privacy invasion bad for kids, it doesn't work well either.  Our research on adolescents' willingness to disclose information to parents has shown that - on four continents - kids' natural response to intrusive parenting is to hide information or lie.  This is counterproductive as well.  The more parents think kids are lying, the more they snoop.  And the more parents snoop, the more kids lie.  Parents are not particularly good at knowing when their children are lying.  So a lot of it comes down to personality: some parents are suspicious and some kids tend to hide things. But the negative cycle of lying and privacy invasion usually ends in one place: distrust.  Rather than bring parents and children closer, invading privacy (like reading diaries) tends to drive parents and children apart. Because most of what parents know about their adolescents' daily lives come from the kids themselves, that is even bad news for monitoring. When adolescents disclose less, their parents are kept in the dark.  Even when they snoop.

Is snooping ever justified?

My colleagues, Lauree Tilton-Weaver and Sheila Marshall, and I have written extensively on the distinction between self disclosure and routine disclosure.  These two phrases have been used interchangeably in the literature, leading to what we think is a real confusion into what we're really talking about when we talk about 'privacy invasion'.

The core of our distinction rests on the concept of 'legitimacy of parental authority'.  Parental legitimacy refers to domains that are within the appropriate sphere of what parents do.  For example, parents protect their children's safety, they socialize them to fill adult roles, they teach them social codes.  Parental rules that do that - set curfews, forbid stealing and swearing, requiring school attendance, eating properly, setting bedtimes - are usually considered 'legitimate' by both parents and children.  Some domains are considered outside the legitimate domain of parental authority.  For example, choosing friends or requiring participation in particular extracurricular activities is often considered outside that legitimate sphere.  Some issues are dicey. Is forbidding a child to spend time with a friend the parent considers problematic a safety issue (legitimate) or a personal issue (not legitimate)?

In our paper, my colleagues and I argue that routine disclosure is when the child shares information that the parent legitimately needs to do their job as a parent.  Telling parents when they have tests, where they are going with friends, when they'll be home are routine information requests.  Routine disclosure of such information is necessary for parents to protect the safety and well-being of their child.  Self-disclosure, on the other hand, is sharing information not necessary for the parent to do their job.  It's something the child has chosen to do.  For example, it is reasonable for me to know that my child will be at the library with a friend.  It is more than I need to know to keep you safe to know all the details of what my child and his friend talked about.  I'd love to know, but it's none of my business unless he chooses to tell me.

Requiring routine disclosure seems a legitimate exercise of parental authority.  Requiring self disclosure seems a violation of the child's personal integrity because they are the ones who should be controlling those privacy boundaries.

Parents and their children disagree - often and sometimes angrily - about what is routine and what is not.  For instance, a parent might rightly believe that their child is suicidal or being abused.  In their role as protector, they might feel justified in violating the privacy barriers their child has erected.  In such cases, snooping might be necessary to protect the child. A less dramatic example is one I often use about my own parenting.  One of my sons had been attacked in our small rural community.  His attackers were people he knew and also local.  He wanted to visit his girlfriend, wanted to ride his bike, and swore he'd be home by midnight.  When he hadn't appeared by 2AM and didn't answer his phone I was honestly frightened.  And I violated his privacy - I went online and into his phone records, found his girlfriend's number, and called her.  Yes he was still there.  Yes he was pissed - but not really.  Because he knew that my violation was motivated by fear, which legitimized the invasion in his eyes.  And he had also broken our agreement - he was way past curfew at a period when he knew this would scare me.

In the Times letter, the writer clearly understands this dance between when it's okay and when it's not okay to violate her child's privacy.  She tries to justify it in terms of parenting: "so I can frame a guiding narrative to boost her confidence, assuage her fears, minimize and redirect negative habits, provide encouragement."  But here, it doesn't pass the ethicists' (or my) smell test: the daughter has done nothing to make her mom believe she needs more than normal guidance.

Research says that distinction is important.  Longitudinal work by Bobby Laird and his colleagues show that when parents monitor good kids intrusively, it does more harm than good.  But when the child has already been getting in trouble, it can be protective.  Why?  Because there's a tradeoff between protecting a child who really needs it and intruding on one who doesn't.

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