It seems as though nearly every week a new study is published that contradicts the last one about how much screen time kids should - and shouldn't - be allowed. But assuming you've decided to take the plunge and buy your child a phone, tablet or computer, the hard choices aren't over - in fact, they have just started. Now, you'll have to figure out just how much digital privacy to allow them.
It depends on age… and personality
The amount of privacy you give your children when it comes to their phones and other devices "depends entirely on age," explains Sean Grover, LCSW, a psychotherapist, with a practice in Manhattan. "For elementary school age, kids need zero privacy; middle school kids should generally be allowed to go to approved sites, but I still wouldn't say 'sure, let them retreat to their room and have free rein to surf the net.'"
As far as high school age kids go, the amount of digital privacy you offer will vary depending on your kid's emotional and social well-being. "If your kid is more reclusive, more socially isolated and retreating more into the digital world that can be a real, real problem," Grover says.
In a case like that, it's up to the parents to monitor what's going on, and you may want to offer less privacy to your kids.
"You have instincts, and they're there for a reason," says Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer of Bark, a digital safety solution for parents.
On the other hand, "If a teenager is having their emotional needs meet, technology is just something else they do for fun," Grover says.
As parents, we want to know that kids can build their own relationships and lives separate from their parents, says Wendy Rice, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist and founder of Rice Psychology Group in Tampa, Florida. Nowadays, she says, kids do a lot of their "hanging out" via technology, and they need a certain level of privacy to do that.
Whether or not the parent of an older child should have his or her password depends on levels of trust in the relationship.
"It depends on the family dynamic, the child's maturity level and personality," Jordan says. "If they're in trouble a lot, you have to weigh that against the privacy factor."
Grover says he's ok with parents having their kids' digital passwords, but thinks it's important that they they're open about it. "Your child — especially in elementary or middle school — should know you have it, and that you're checking in occasionally. Kids will be more cautious that way," he says. Being a bit more cautious can make them less likely to get involved in dangerous behaviour online — both with friends and strangers alike.
Having a digital password — and even checking in occasionally — is different than constantly checking, or reading all correspondance. The latter activities should be avoided, experts say.
To read or not to read?
Spying on kids, says Grover, is deceitful and a "terrible model." (Think of this as the digital equivalent of reading your child's diary.)
As a therapist working with young people, he says, everything is confidential unless he senses that the child may hurt themselves or someone else. And that's a good basic guideline to follow with digital privacy, too. "If you suspect your child has a drug problem, or they're coming in late a lot, or there's another reason to be concerned about their wellbeing, then you can read their communication," he says.
But if you're just feeling curious and not particularly concerned about your child's behaviour, "as a rule, I would not advise it," says Grover, who is also the author of When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control of Your Darling Bully — and Enjoy Being a Parent Again.
But remember that you're well within your rights to check in some instances. "Kids need to know that their parents can check, that they're not entitled to absolute privacy on their devices," says Rice. If they're keeping their behaviour in check, it's a two-way street for you to curb your own curiosity if you don't have genuine concerns. "You can't monitor everything anyway," she says, "it's much more important to have the lines of communication open."
And, Rice says, from a child's perspective, "it certainly doesn't feel good to be spied on all the time," she says.
Rice says that working with parents and children, she's found that "too many parents go in there and delete things or answer people as though they're the child," instead of going to their child and saying "Can you tell me about this?" The latter is always the better idea.
Time to track?
While most phones offer tracking technology, whether or not you choose to follow your child's moves isn't clear cut.
Jordan says she thinks tracking a child's phone is less invasive than reading their correspondence, and can be a good thing in a worst-case scenario, like if the child goes missing. But just like having your child's password, it's important to be honest about your intentions. "Don't use it to follow them or anything, but just let them know that you have it and that you may occasionally check on them," she says.
"I totally support tracking with complete disclosure," Grover adds. "A lot of kids who come into therapy will say their mum is always texting them and asking where they are. Interestingly, I'll say, 'How about your mum won't hound you, or embarass you in front of your friends, if you let her use a tracker.' They don't skip a beat and immediately say ok," he says.
Plus, he adds, if a kid is "dead against" the tracker, that could be a sign that something's wrong.
Rice says her feelings are mixed about the tracker, while she understands that sometimes it's necessary, in an ideal world, she'd say no. "Kids need a little bit of freedom," she says.
"It's all about how figuring out how much space you want to give them. These issues of independence used to come up with things like kids getting their own phone lines and their own car keys. This is the same thing, they're just different tools," says Jordan.