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How Much Privacy Do Teens Have a Right to?

Updated on February 16, 2017
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Layfield & Barrett is a Personal Injury Law firm in US, dedicated to helping negligently injured victims get justice and compensation.

The need for more privacy is a natural part of adolescence. But even the lack of it is particularly true today when information about every aspect of our lives is stored in smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, computers around the world, and new technologies as they continue to emerge. This has raised a variety of issues related to privacy rights that come up in different situations and settings.

For most parents, it’s a struggle to come to terms with a child’s increased desire for privacy. Factors such as locked doors, closed personal diaries, a deleted text, etc. represent a growing need of the child to separate from their parents and carve a place for themselves. This is all because children are dealing with teenage challenges and working out the kind of person he/she is. They are also developing new social skills, physical and thinking capacities. A significant portion of growing up involves learning to deal with these challenges with independence and aplomb.

Privacy defined

Privacy encompasses how much control a child has over information about himself or herself, as well as property he considers his alone, such as a bedroom or diary or cellphone content. Kids tend to establish these personal spaces by setting up boundaries that other people may not cross without permission. As a child grows up, so does their understanding and desire for keeping certain things to themselves. It is the responsibility of parents to respect their child’s growing privacy rules despite their curiosity or concern. If they decide not to do so, they could risk losing their child’s trust for good and causing a permanent strain on the relationship.

The steady evolution of privacy and kids

Toddlers must rely on their parents for everything from eating, bathing and dressing to the most intimate bodily care and have very little concept of privacy. Some of the early signs of privacy will start emerging at the age of 3 and may include shying away from parents as another changes them or becoming self-conscious when they need help in the bathroom. As children grow up, their understanding of privacy becomes a lot more nuanced, and they start to see a difference between their parents’ world and their own.

Around the age of 10, children tend to spend most of their time in their room or will create groups or clubhouses where they can escape from the world both literally and metaphorically. Their bedrooms become off-limits to siblings as well as parents – even if it means living amidst a mess. As they tend to grow older, friends become more important, and they would prefer sharing information with their peers instead of mom and dad.

Parents have to learn to trust them enough to give them ownership over information and space to be able to get them to learn about life. But it is also important that parents work out a way to prevent kids from making new rules and completely shut them out.

The younger generation is usually most concerned about privacy-related issues that arise at school or things that involve a personal decision.

Privacy at school

A student’s right to privacy at schools has always been a controversial topic since the U.S. Constitution prevents school officials from ever searching through a student’s personal property. The Fourth Amendment offers protection to all Americans, including students attending public schools, from any unreasonable searches and seizures performed by a government entity. This even applies to searches conducted by public school teachers and other officials.

The right to student privacy extends to education records, admissions, and conduct. When personal information is disclosed to unauthorized third parties without consent, it is a violation of the student’s right to privacy. Mandatory drug testing at public schools is a relatively new rule that has been passed. Schools began conducting their own drug testing programs, frequently focusing on athletes and this was followed by a series of legal victories for upholding the rights of schools to a drug test.

Privacy and “private decisions”

This aspect of privacy is of much interest to both, parents and their children. It involves questions of when, and if a child can make important, yet highly personal decisions, without the knowledge of the parents. When parents have custody of their child, they have the right to make many important decisions about their child’s life and life plans. However, there are certain instances in which children have the authority to make decisions without parental involvement, some of these are:

  • When a child is 12 or older and seeks medical help related to a drug or alcohol problem

  • When a child is 12 or older and seeks medical treatment for an infection, sexually transmitted or contagious disease

  • When a child is 12 or older and seeks medical help for rape. The paramedics can attempt to contact the minor’s parents or guardian unless he/she has grounds to believe that the minor’s parents or guardian is responsible for the rape

  • When a child is seeking medical help for the care and prevention of pregnancy. This can involve birth control, abortion, etc.

Lessons in online privacy

Parents these days are more worried about their child’s online privacy than the real world and tend to go into a panic when the whole package of texting, tweeting, surfing the web, sharing photos and information is presented to a teenager.

It would help if parents set up tech sessions with their kids every week and ask them to teach them something new about the online world. In this way, it will provide an opportunity to work together and set up boundaries and controls. Educate children about the risk of sharing too much personal information online and the trouble it could invite.

Respecting a child’s privacy

Parents first need to ask themselves what they really need to know, and this will help them work out where to draw the boundary when it comes to their child’s privacy. There are certain things that parents need to be informed about, such as where their child is going to be on Saturday night but other things can be left private between the child and his/her friends – like what they talked about at the party or who they danced with.

Some of the practical options that parents could choose to respect their child’s privacy are:

  • Knocking before entering the room

  • Asking before getting things out of the school bag or cupboard

  • Checking to see if they want you to be there when they see the doctor

It would also help to sit down with the child, set some ground rules and work out certain boundaries. These rules can be tweaked as the kid gets older.

To send a positive message that a parent respects a child’s privacy, they should avoid things like:

  • Going through stuff that is in their room

  • Listening in on telephone conversations

  • Trying to communicate on social networking sites

  • Reading their personal diary, texts or email account

  • Calling on the mobile to check on them at all times

Every parent must eventually learn to trust their child, respect them and stay connected. When a good rapport is established, it helps to put children’s minds at ease and encourages them to share what they are up to.


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