The year was 1991. I was a freshman in high school. She had just said yes to my request to officially be my girlfriend. When it came to the world of dating, I had about as much experience as Peyton Manning has at sitting on the bench. Not only was I clueless, but I quickly realized that I was intimidated by the thought of officially “going out.” High on my list of reservations was the phone conversations that I thought I needed to have in order to keep the relationship going. But, one night, I decided it was time to make a call on one of the landlines (since there was no other option). So, since the kitchen phone was clearly out of the running, I was left to call from the other phone in one of the bedrooms upstairs, which I shared with my two younger brothers. At any time, the privacy I desperately desired could have been shattered by a sibling making his way through the room or someone just needing to use the bathroom next door. Needless to say, the conversation was not long, and ventured little from the kinds of things that I wasn’t too worried that my nosy family members might hear.
25 years later, the landscape is starkly different. Whereas none of my high school graduating class owned a mobile device, and the internet was not yet being used by my cohort, 80-85% of middle schoolers have their own mobile device. Almost all youth of this age or older regularly spend time communicating through the internet, whether through social networking, instant messaging, or a myriad of other options. Gone are the days when the conversations were confined to face to face interactions, landline phone calls, or notes passed or sent in different ways. Most of today’s youth can’t fathom the idea that people can’t be reached instantly no matter where they are.
With these massive changes in technology, though, has come a significant shift in how youth perceive their right to privacy, and just what the “privacy” means. Whereas youth of my age simply assumed that communications which occurred outside of a direct conversation might be open to parental or sibling monitoring, many youth today assume that they have a right to have (and house) conversations, messages, and pictures without being seen or heard by their caretakers. Recently, I had a youth in my office ask me what he thought was an obvious question. He irritatingly queried whether or not I thought his parents (who were in the room) had a right to see his Facebook or Twitter posts, which happened to be quite explicit. When I responded matter-of-factly that I thought they did (for multiple reasons that I later explained), he seemed befuddled. Like many of his cohort, his confused response spoke of what he perceived as a right, not a privilege, to full privacy when it came to his communications with others—even if these communications remained online for good, and could be transmitted far and wide for anyone to see.
Beneath the seismic shift we are seeing in regards to our youth’s concept of privacy is an obvious, yet often neglected reality. The youth of today have no more right to privacy than the youth of my generation or those before. Technology has simply allowed and sanctioned it without any real discussion if it should be. Furthermore, as youth today not only believe in greater privacy, and often exercise this right through the use of password-protected mobile devices (ironically paid for by their parents), we as parents continue to lose the ability to monitor and provide feedback to what they do. No longer do we just have to worry about where they are, and what they are saying and doing, when they are away from home. Now we have to worry where they are in cyberspace, and what they are saying or doing even when they are in the same room.
Even the youngest of children deserve a certain level of privacy. From the moment kids begin to think, all should be afforded a private place that exists in the caverns of their own mind. As children grow older and have conversations with others, it is important that they learn how to interact without expecting that everything they say will be heard and scrutinized by adults. As youth become more involved in activities outside the home, they have increased opportunities to interact with others in different places about a variety of matters. Although we as parents might be concerned about what is being said, we must learn how to balance our need to protect with our need to trust. When we sanction our youth to be certain places, part of the growing process for them (and us) is learning how to manage what they say, or else they will often suffer natural, unpleasant consequences. Unless negative outcomes ensue from these conversations that necessitate our involvement, youth should be given the right to grow up in this way.
But what the technological world has done is to take this idea to an unhealthy extreme in multiple ways. Most of us have grown up realizing that there is a huge difference between what we would say in person, and what we will say in written form, whether anonymously or not. Furthermore, as the modes of communication continue to increase for all, our youth are faced with many tempting and frightful options to instantly say what they feel or think without necessarily understanding the potential consequences. Safe to say, our youth need us today more than ever when it comes to navigating the communication superhighway. But as many children and adolescents are allowed to run their own dispatch center, we are only reinforcing the level of privacy they feel they deserve.
Still, if I stop there in placing all the responsibility on the technological shift, I would only be telling part of the story. The privacy shift promoted by our technological mobility is also being promoted by our society, with supporting views and policies being put forth. In some states, minors can obtain an abortion without parental consent (and sometimes without parental notification), although in some (such as Indiana) this can only occur after a court approval that bypasses parental authority (or in an emergency situation). Youth of any age can get birth control of various kinds (including that which requires a prescription) without parental or primary care consent.
The scope of this article is not to debate the merits of birth control or abortion (in youth or otherwise) or enter into a legislative or political discussion. The purpose of broaching these topics is to look at this reality from a logical vantage point when it comes to parenting, privacy (or confidentiality), and medical decision-making. Whereas other medical procedures (and many other leisure activities or privileges) require parental consent, these two areas currently do not. Beneath all the adversarial banter, the message to our youth rings clear: privacy trumps authority.
As a psychologist, I am fully aware that there are certain unhealthy, threatening circumstances that youth may face in their own home which may place them in an uncomfortable, or even precarious place, when it comes to their parents finding out that they are having sex and/or are pregnant. I realize that well-intentioned practitioners (whether the youth’s doctor or individuals in different clinics) may feel that they are shielding youth from a harsh, and even potentially harmful, reality if the parents (or parent or guardian) were to find out what had been going on. I realize that some worry that if youth don’t have a confidential option, they may resort to unhealthy and/or drastic means. But if you are like me (and I think some of you are), there is a degree of well-directed anger that emerges from within when I find out that I could be left out of one of the, if not the, most important decisions of my youth’s life. Just like the issue of mobile communication with our youth, somewhere along the line it seems that we began to ignore the huge body of research that indicates our adolescents’ brains are far from being developed, and the parents in our communities must be involved in critical decisions that occur with our children. As big of a risk as some may think it is to not allow for adolescents to make confidential decisions about their reproduction and sexuality, it seems that the bigger societal risk is taking the parents out of the equation in the first place. Simply because certain parents do not exercise their authority properly, or certain adolescents act inappropriately, should not mean that all parents could be potentially stripped of their right to know, and then act, as a parent when it is due time. In some ways, it makes more sense that we should grant youth of a certain age all medical decision-making rights (of which I am not advocating) than just those that involve reproduction and sexuality. Otherwise, it seems that societal polices and ideals such as these are suggesting that a decision to address a knee injury or depression necessitates parent-adolescent communication while the decision to end a pregnancy does not. In my office, even though I afford teens the right to privacy in our conversations, I legally cannot see a 17-year-old until his or her parents’ consent and am ethically required to inform parents in situations of clear harm (such as suicidal ideation) regardless of how uncomfortable it may be.
We live in a privatized society. Tall fences abound in many places. Homes are built in sizes and manners that allow for privacy like our ancestors never dreamed. Caller ID and password protection is the name of the game. Opinions vary. I would love to know yours. But in the meantime, my wife and I only have 18 legally sanctioned years to offer guidance and advice to our kids about how to live the hopefully 60+ years to follow. We want them to learn how to think and reason on their own. But if our attempts to love and teach them as we see fit are increasingly trumped by the value of privacy and confidentiality, then our influence will only continue to wane. Once our children leave our house, they have a lifetime to be as private as they want assuming they abide by the laws of the land. But while they are living in our home, we simply can’t afford to accept the terms of privacy being put forth today. And neither can you.