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Teens And Texting: Is Reading My Son’s Texts An Invasion Of Privacy?

Dear Your Teen:

Is it an invasion of privacy to read my 16-year-old son’s text messages and emails? I don’t want to hover. But in the name of safety I feel I need to still see my child’s text messages. I never comment on what I read unless I see something that’s unsafe or too vulgar.

ANSWER | Matthew Rouse, Ph.D.

This can be a tough one for parents to figure out. It’s at the intersection of three things we want for all our children. First, we want trusting and open relationships with them, where they feel comfortable coming to us with anything. Second, we want them to increasingly gain independence and autonomy. Finally and perhaps most importantly, we want them to be able to do those things safely. But sometimes those things can be at odds, and we have to prioritize one over the other. An example is the system of driver’s license learner’s permits. We want teens to learn how to drive in order to eventually be able to do so independently. But we can’t be sure they’ll drive safely so we prioritize safety over independence for a period of time.

Teens And Texting: Open Communication Is The Best Policy

When it comes to texting and social media, the best way to preserve all three is to be fully transparent from the outset. As parents are making the decision to allow their children to enter the world of social media, it can be presented as a privilege and not a right. Parents can let their kids know that they will be checking texts and messages occasionally and that the privilege may be revoked if they find that they are not being used appropriately and safely.

For those who may check on teens’ social media without their knowledge, I would encourage intervening only in things that might pose safety risks, like cyber bullying, sexting, talk about alcohol or drugs, or chats with people the parents don’t know. Otherwise, teens need room to try things out for themselves, to get their feelings hurt, hurt the feelings of others, and see what all those social experiences feel like. Teen privacy helps them develop the coping and social skills they’ll need for their whole lives.

To get back to the original question, it would be great if this mother could tell her son that she checks his accounts from time to time. But in the end, 16 years old is a still a child, no matter how grown up he may look. His brain will continue to develop into his early 20s. Therefore, he probably does need a social media “learner’s permit”. Hopefully, there will come a time when his mother feels that he has demonstrated that he can use social media safely and responsibly enough that she gives him his full social media license.

Matthew Rouse, PhD, MSW

Matthew Rouse is a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute specializing in the assessment and treatment of ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders, as well as other disorders that may contribute to behavioral difficulties in children and adolescents.