A friend of mine found out that her college-age daughter had a new boyfriend by reading her updated Facebook page. The mom was surprised and a little hurt. Why hadn’t she been told? The daughter was angry. “You’re not supposed to read that, mother! It’s not for you.” This was the daughter’s own young-person’s life, out there on the internet for all the world to see – except, apparently, her mother.
I think about how the expectation of privacy might be reexamined in light of all our technology. In high school I used to write in a diary that I kept under lock and key (except the key was as flimsy as a paper clip). I wrote on the first page in a black, ominous print:KEEP OUT! THIS MEANS YOU! I meant my little brother, not my mother. Which is ironic because my little brother was not the least bit interested in the drama of my teenage life. My mother – who was interested — I believed respected my privacy. But maybe not.
When my own daughters were teenagers, they kept diaries as well. Once I confessed to a friend that when I went to change the linen, I had read (skimmed, really) a diary left in the mess of a daughter’s unmade bed. “Would you ever do that?” I asked my friend. “Read your daughter’s diary?”
I felt a little guilty. Although this was the same daughter who had a bottle of beer break in a backpack tossed in her closet at the end of the school year and probably deserved some checking up on. She had been away at summer camp when the smell of hops permeated her room. I traced the smell and opened her closet door to find the evidence. Later she accused me of “not respecting her privacy.” But not before she was grounded for the rest of the summer.
“Of course,” my friend assured me. She read some of the notes her daughter had in a notebook. She listened with half an ear when her daughter was on the phone behind a closed bedroom door. “How else do you know what’s going on?”
Now almost everyone can know what’s going on. As a teacher, I am sometimes amazed (and appalled) at the pictures that my students post for all the world to see. The intimacies my kids and their friends share on the various social sites are detailed and graphic.
At the same time, there’re more ways that young people can block access. They can de-friend (but can they un-parent?); they have their own phones and can text in plain sight in a coded language as foreign to most parents as Swahili.
What’s a parent to do? I don’t have a clear answer for this. Trust is a good thing. But it’s probably smart to maintain a covert surveillance. The world can be dangerous, even if we also want our children able to independently navigate through it. Our own good children can sometimes be untrustworthy. We want our kids to make smart choices. Or at least we don’t want them to be severely hurt by making some dumb ones. I’m on the side of knowing – or at least trying to know – what’s going on.