How much privacy do teenagers have? Is it okay to unlock their devices every now and then and check their activity behind their backs? These are complicated questions for me, because I believe privacy is a fundamental human right. I understand that teenagers are young adults who can only grow if they make their own mistakes. Yet, as a parent, I have an innate sense that this is not something one can simply take one’s eye off.
Here’s the dilemma as I see it. As a teenager, I used to get angry, feel violated if someone read my diary. But then, there was no risk of my diary being seen by millions; Or heartfelt confessions or scrawls in the margins that follow me through life.
At a time of nude selfies and online stalkers, is there an arbitrary way to determine how much of my child’s activity I should consider their personal diary and where to draw the line? I decided to ask three people immersed in the tech ecosystem: privacy and fintech experts, lawyers and online privacy scholars, and researchers at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER).
The former has a liberal bent, so I was surprised when he responded to my initial question: “Children have no right to privacy.” He explained that contemporary technology is designed to be addictive. A combination of addictive algorithms and young minds should be a responsible parent or stay away.
This forced me to turn to researchers at IISER, Pune, who work at the intersection of computing and neurosciences. His reading, research and observation of teenagers suggested that they should be closely monitored. He reminded me that the frontal lobe of the adolescent brain is not fully developed and it is more prone than adults to make impulsive decisions. The combination of addictive algorithms, peer behavior, and poor impulse control has real potential for long-term damage.
But what about the morality of it all? I contact Rahul Mattan, a lawyer and author of Privacy 3.0. He said that such dilemmas are not unique to our times. People — governments, doctors, citizens, parents — have navigated freedom versus control through the long arc of history.
Mathen said when the bicycle was new, there was much discussion about the risks to safety and privacy. Isn’t it a violation of a woman’s privacy that some asked to force her to dress in a completely different way, considered rude and intrusive? Can overusing a bicycle cause damage? Can accidents kill?
In fact, it happened to me that most parents still start their kids on training wheels with clearly stated limits on how far they can ride. Better down the road; Down the expressway, definitely not. Their friends can ride all the way to the nearest hill station; There are probably no right answers. But as parents, it is our duty to decide where the balance lies between freedom and security for our children.
I have a different perspective now, new questions are emerging. We are four middle-aged adults discussing aspects of tech security, and we are all digital nomads. Teenagers may not have the perspective or impulse control that we do, but they are digital natives born into these technologies. If a child can ride a bicycle skillfully by the age of three, can they only use it to go on the road at age 16? And am I still qualified to judge how far they can go?
As three of my friends pointed out, there are no absolute answers. These are the biggest challenges of modern parenting. We can expect to argue with young people for a while, about how much of their privacy is due. We can relieve some of the stress by navigating new terrains with measures of trust, transparency and communication.
I can say from experience that it helps to have a non-digital playing field in common. My older teenager is trying to appreciate hip-hop and I’m working on introducing her to classical music. It is progressing on both sides. But it’s time for both of us to leave the digital world.