Invading Privacy in the Name of Safety

Parents invade privacy too·

Privacy is big news.  Or loss of privacy is.

We give away our privacy on Facebook.  The Patriot Act allowed the US government to scoop up phone records en masse, a practice Congress now debates.  And every time we give in to the convenience of swiping a card through a machine, we leave a trail of information that tells someone – businesses, schools, government – where we are and an enormous range of information about our interests.

Since at least the 1950’s, public libraries have refused to release information about what titles patrons borrow, because it tells ‘authorities’ too much about our interests and private thoughts.  Google has no such compunction.

Privacy and parenting

I was thinking about privacy this morning when chivying my son off to school.  Chivying (a wonderful word – particularly applicable to the parents of migraineurs – that means repeatedly telling someone to do something) because once more my son had woken up in pain.  The weather was beautiful but by 7AM we had already moved from fog to storm to beautifully clear.  The barometric pressure had shifted with these fashions.  And my son’s brain – beautifully attuned to the nuanced shifts of our atmosphere – was wracked with pain: his skin hypersensitized to touch, his pupils wide open and way too vulnerable to light, cringing from sound, throwing heat, muscles tense.

Unlike short term illnesses, where rest is your body’s best recourse, pain management centers around the country recommend people suffering from chronic pain and chronic sensitivities to go out into the world with their pain.  Like Gollum in his cave, when people who are hypersensitive draw away from the pain of sound, sight, and touch, they become increasingly sensitive over time.  He needed to get out into the world.

So once more, I was pushing my son to eat, get dressed, and get out.  Awkward for a mother of a teen boy.  In fact, I shamelessly use that awkwardness to my advantage: I have handed him clothes and told him I’ll put them on myself if he doesn’t get himself dressed in three minutes.  An effective threat I have never had to carry out.

My job as a parent is to ensure his safety and in parenting, safety trumps the child’s right to privacy.  But he has a right to privacy – certainly physical privacy in his person.  Where is that line?  At what point does concern for his physical health trump his right to privacy?  Because he uses my unwillingness to cross lines of privacy to his advantage too.  His war with pain is a battle where we are both allies, share common goals, but have different priorities in terms of long term strategies and short term tactics.

Legitimacy of parental authority

When parents and children talk about what areas it is ‘okay’ for parents to set rules about, what areas they ‘should’ set rules about, and which rules children ‘must’ obey, we are talking about an area of research on the legitimacy of parental authority.  Growing out of Piagetian research on morality, it is about right and wrong.  The job of parents is to protect and socialize their children.  But that power is not unlimited.

Children, similarly, have a right to privacy and autonomy. 

I have a right – a duty – to help my son restore his health and go to school.  In fact, I have a legal obligation, placed on me by the state.  But he has a right to make decisions about his person and to maintain his dignity and autonomy.

Over the past 60 years, we have learned that parents and children both agree that parents – incumbent on their role as protector and socializer – have the right and obligation to set rules and expectations about:

  • prudential issues of health and safety (don’t drink, look both ways before you cross the street, brush your teeth)
  • moral issues (don’t steal, bully, or hit your sister)
  • conventional issues (no feet on the table, clean your room)

There are areas that empirical areas my colleagues find consistent support for that don’t fall cleanly into those areas, but we call ‘normal parenting’:

  • doing homework
  • time spent on shared resources like common phones

There are areas that parents and their kids do NOT think parents should set rules about.  These are defined as ‘personal’ issues and include areas that only concern the individual who is making the decision:

  • choice of friends
  • media use, like books, music, or movies
  • hairstyle and clothing

But most areas of life fall in the cracks and are multi-dimensional.  There are elements of multiple domains:

  • That homework is done is something parents should ensure.  How and when it is done is more personal (music on or off?  on the floor or the kitchen table?  immediately after school, before dinner, or before bedtime?) 
  • Romantic relationships are interesting because in all countries we have studied – the US, Chile, the Philippines, Italy, and Uganda – adolescents cede much more authority to parents about dating than they do in friendship.  The personal is certainly there in terms of adolescents feeling they should have control of if and whom.  But they also cede parents authority of some control over how and when – probably because issues of both convention and safety come into play.  And those are areas of parental concern.
  • Problematic friends are also an intersection.  “Problematic” suggests prudential danger, but friends are clearly personal.  Who gets to judge what is ‘problematic’?
  • And media use is also complex.  Violence or pornography falls into the prudential or moral camp.  But how much?  What type?  And does TIME spent on a computer when the child has already completed their other work constitute an infringement of the child’s choice of leisure or a safety issue?
  • Alcohol and substance use are always interesting issues, because they are almost unique in late adolescence because teens say that their parents should  set rules about them – it’s their job to tell them not to do drugs or drink.  But they do not feel that they should have to obey those rules.  Most teens consider it an area of personal decision-making. 
  • Sexual behavior is also interesting, because they cede parents right to be concerned about their physical health and sometimes consider it to be a moral issue and thus of parental concern.  But it is a deeply personal area that they do not concede decision-making power over.

Privacy and Parenting

Privacy and legitimacy of parental authority are deeply connected, because they are, at heart, about the integrity of the self.  All people have an inherent right to dignity and control of their private thoughts and their sense of who they are.  I believe this is at the core of the personal domain.  No one has right to tell you what or who to like or how to spend your free time.  That defines who you are.  Reading a diary or email or scrolling through someone’s photo scroll or texts is crossing a boundary from thoughts and decisions that concern no one but themselves into those they choose to share with others.  I have written before about those boundaries and how they can be broken and shared in the post Sharing Privacy and Secrets Betrayed. 

But sometimes the obligation to protect trumps the right to privacy.  And that is the constant dilemma of parenting at the edge.  A few years ago, a student of mine who was also a parent had a child who she thought was cutting herself.  The child was 12.  My student thought she was cutting her feet with a razor, although the child carefully covered her feet at all times and was loudly indignant at any suggestion that she was engaged in self-harm.  My student eventually checked her feet and took her to get help when she found she was hurting herself. 

Invasion of personal privacy?  Prudential parenting?  To me, the concern for protecting the daughter’s health clearly trumped the daughter’s right to privacy in an area where she was hurting herself. 

But cases get fuzzier.  Is parental concern that a child is engaged in sexual behavior one that warrants intervention?  If the child is 10 certainly.  If they are 16?  If the issue is abuse or lack of contraception?  If it is a moral concern?  What about consensual sex in a romantic relationship?

The boundaries of child privacy and parental obligation to protect and socialize change not only over domains, but also with age.  Research has clearly shown that both parents and adolescents cede more privacy to adolecents and less legitimacy to parents as children become adolescents and finally adults.  But adolescents, at least, also differ.  Some enter adolescence at age 12 essentially saying their parents have no right to set rules over anything – everything is personal and private.  Others enter adolescence ceding parents control over everything – nothing is private.  Most – around 55% – say it is a mixed bag.  One of the results of cognitive development in adolescence seems to be that adolescents develop a more nuanced understanding of parental authority.   As they get older, more and more adolescents move from the extremes into the more nuanced middle ground.

Going to School and Government Prying

Which gets me back to pushing my son out the door and government prying.

My son is 16 and at some point soon, will be making healthcare decisions on his own.  In fact, since he is 4″ taller than me and outweighs me by 20 pounds, the only reason I can get him out the door is that I can talk him into it.  He knows that it’s better for him to go to school.  This IS a battle we’re allies in.  My persuasion, chivying, and threats help him to do what he knows he should do.  And there are days when he just can’t, puts his foot down, and there we are. He grants me legitimate authority to make health related decisions.  And that is shown by the long lengths he will go to argue me into persuading me to change my mind – as when he did not want to go on a new medication and convinced me to reduce his medication level instead as a trial.  He was right and it was a good decision.  I know many parents whose kids take control of their privacy and decision-making in other ways: by lying.  So they pretend to take pills and hide them.  This is a problem with many older adults and psychiatric patients as well.

Privacy invasion by the government is also done by consent – and by similar means.  When done legally, it involves them persuading us to trade privacy for safety.  In other words, changing an area of lives from the ‘personal’ to the ‘prudential’ domain.  And like parents, one role of the government can be thought to be protecting public safety.  There is greater consensus that this is a legitimate use of authority with regards to threats from outside the country than from within.  Thus threats from terrorists or communists tend to work more persuasively with the citizenry than internal threats. 

Research on legitimate authority has found very similar thinking controls the use of power by governments as by parents.


· Invading Privacy in the Name of Safety was first published by Nancy Darling for her blog, Thinking About Kids, for Psychology Today on May 27, 2015: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/thinking-about-kids/201505/invading-privacy-in-the-name-safety