The fine line between trust and privacy: when should it be crossed?


Illustration by Isabella Lombardo

Natalie Tress

As teenagers mature throughout their middle and high school years, their views on privacy shifts. In elementary school, most children love to include their parents in many aspects of their everyday lives, whether it be organizing their rooms, picking out clothes, or going on outings. The continuity of a parent’s inseparable attachment to their children and influence over their decisions often comes to an abrupt end as they enter their high school years, a time of transition for most, and an opportunity to further develop one’s identity. As the students’ lives and desire for independence change, so does their need for privacy.

As teenagers get older, they tend to share less about their lives with their parents. The lack of communication often results in parents snooping with hopes of discovering something hidden from them. According to Skylar Hawk, a leader of numerous studies on the topic of teenage privacy, invading a child’s privacy usually does not end with parents successfully finding the information they sought. Often, Hawk argues, invading privacy has negative consequences.

“The act of snooping seems to say more about what the parents are feeling than what their kids are doing,” Hawk said. “When parents engage in behaviors that teenagers see as privacy invasions, it backfires because parents end up knowing less.”

According to a survey conducted by the New York Times, adolescents who felt their privacy was invaded by their parents were less likely to open up to them, while teenagers who believed their privacy was respected felt the opposite. This leads to the connection between privacy and trust. Many students felt that as long as their parents trust them, there is no reason to violate their privacy. However, there is a fine line between privacy and safety. If parents trust their child, but they believe they could be in danger, they should have the right to intrude to ensure their child’s safety and well being. 

While there is likely no reason that a teenager would not be safe in their own bedroom or out in public, parents tend to worry about their safety in regards to drugs, alcohol, and other illicit experiences. Parents with a mission of keeping an eye on their children when they are out have begun to use tracking apps like Find My Friends or Life360, both are easily accessible on mobile devices.  

According to a Redwood Bark survey published in December, 39 percent of students reported that they are knowingly tracked by their parents using a digital application. However, 50 percent of students argued against parents tracking their children and believe it is an invasion of privacy while only 26 percent of students feel that it is ethical for parents to track their kids. 

Chris Hulls, co-founder and CEO of Life360, explained how safety is an extremely important aspect that causes parents to not trust their kids.

“Our user base has exploded to more than 20 million families. It is particularly interesting to see that safety is the primary reason driving the use of location sharing apps,” Hulls said. 

While checking in on a child’s safety is reasonable, tracking apps can easily be used for the wrong purpose to an extent that is far too intrusive. In response to Life360, many customers gave the app negative reviews, claiming it to be an invasion of privacy for teenagers and suggesting that parents should not use the app if they fully trust their child.

Psychologist Pamela Rutledge felt that parents’ uncertainty is one of the main factors that push them to use tracking apps. 

“Apps like [Find My Friends and Life 360] are marketing to our primal fear of uncertainty and danger in the guise of our need for connection. It offers the illusion that information will keep us safe and connected. It doesn’t address the core issues that are at risk in the act of monitoring: trust and consent,” Rutledge said. 

As teenagers are exposed to increasingly more freedom and independence, trust must come with it. Parents must not be afraid of what their child could be doing, and rather be confident that their child is safe unless proven otherwise. 

 “Your role as a parent is to provide age-appropriate guidance, structure, and support. It is not to hover and spy,” Rutledge said. 

Invading teenagers’ privacy restricts their ability to develop self-confidence and independence. Teenagers will soon move out to live on their own, and parents are not doing any favors by pulling them back with a leash of skepticism and invasion of privacy.