30 November 2022

Are kids entitled to their privacy online?

| Zoya Patel
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Child on laptop

What’s the best way to keep a child safe online? Photo: Annie Spratt.

After a long wait, my 13-year-old niece has graduated from an Apple watch to her own iPhone. It’s later than many kids her age, but the desire to protect her innocence for a little bit longer, and limit her dependency on a device, kept her parents from relenting to her pleas for a phone for some time.

Now that she has her hand-me-down iPhone, she’s basically glued to it and takes a lot of pride in this new step towards adulthood.

There are rules though – the phone is an open book. While she can use it to connect with her friends and go online, it’s with the knowledge that her parents can also unlock it and look through it at any point as well.

At first, hearing this, I immediately wondered if that was fair to my niece. I remember growing up without a smartphone (or any phone until I was 17), but with parents who had scrutiny of everything I did.

We had our conversations with friends in the kitchen on the wired phone, and our only computer had dial-up internet and was in the lounge where everyone could see the screen.

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When I did eventually get my first Nokia phone, my Dad got the bills and could see every number I had texted or called. At times, this felt suffocating – I felt like I had no privacy and that everything I did was up for discussion. I felt a strong need to hide things from my parents even when there was nothing to hide, and I feel like this furtiveness was at least partly driven by the sense that they were always watching.

Looking back, I can see where my parents were coming from in their desire to be across who I was interacting with and how. Despite their vigilance, I still managed to have my share of creepy conversations with strange older men on MSN messenger over my teen years.

In fact, I have friends who even arranged to meet up with strangers from the internet and, though these plans never came to fruition, it’s scary to think what may have been waiting for them if they had gone ahead.

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If I think about the digital environment my niece is in now, obviously the room for error or mishap is much higher, and the impact of cyber bullying, predatory behaviours, and even just the long-term affect social media images may have on her self esteem are worth preventing.

But, at the same time, I’m conscious of how important it is for young people to be given privacy and agency, to develop their sense of personhood and also to help them learn about responsibility, accountability and decision-making. So where do you draw the line?

Friends with teenage children tell me it’s a minefield out there. That every week there’s a new issue with kids bullying each other online, distributing inappropriate images, weaponising social media in their intricate hierarchical games. But equally, I see plenty of well-adjusted teens using their phone for the same reasons I do – to enjoy receiving interesting content via the various platforms I use, to take photos and to connect with people.

I feel a certain amount of parental oversight is necessary, but how do you decide at what level to police your kids use of personal devices and to check and scrutinise their interactions? Is it about age or the individual?

How have you addressed this in your home with kids or teens? Do kids have a right to their privacy or is their safety online the first priority?

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