Many parents are worried about how their children spend time on their phones. They are either playing games, watching random videos, scrolling through their social media feed, or chatting with their friends. Growing concerns among many parents, teachers, and health professionals have been more relevant as studies reveal that too much time spent on screens may be linked to recent increases in teen depression and suicide.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released official guidelines, recommending less than one hour per day of screen time for children between the ages of 2 and 5. For older children, experts say that there should be “consistent limits” on screen time and prioritization of sleep, physical activity, and other healthy behaviors.
“Teens spend more time on their phones and on social media, and we know from other research that these activities are more strongly linked to low wellbeing than watching TV and videos, which is most of younger children’s screen time,” Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said.
Most of the time, parents can be extremely worried about whether their children are safe with using phones. Recent studies revealed that kids who are exposed online are more vulnerable to predators. Several researchers also suggest that excessive screen time leads to developmental delays. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found out that kids who spent more time watching screens at ages 2 and 3 did worse on developmental tests at the subsequent time points of 3 and 5 years.
With all these negative impacts, it’s understandable why many parents would do everything to keep their children safe, even if this means going through their private messages or texts. However, is this the right thing to do?
Why You Shouldn’t Read Your Child’s Private Messages
Experts say that while there’s no simple answer to the question, parents should still consider their kids’ feelings before deciding to take a look into their private stuff. Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t read your children’s private messages.
1 – Privacy matters
Previous research revealed that it’s quite common for parents to digitally snoop on their kids. A recent Pew Research study, for instance, found out that 60% of parents monitor what websites their children are visiting and what they’re doing on social media. Another 35% of parents actually have the passwords to their kids’ social media accounts. However, parents still need to value their children’s privacy.
According to HowToAdult.com, an online site that provides expert tips to help answer all your most pressing parenting questions, parents who read a child’s text messages demonstrate their lack of respect for their child's privacy. Privacy is important as a kid grows up because it would help them gain a sense of independence that is necessary for successful adulthood. While it’s understandable why you want to read their texts, kids won’t appreciate you snooping around their private lives.
2 – Private messages don’t reveal the full picture
Some parents who have tried to read their children’s text messages may have read things that can make them assume things about their kids. However, experts say that just reading those messages won’t reveal the true nature of their child’s habit on their phone. With so many apps, groups, communications and games, and more on their phones, it’s difficult to know if they are truly safe or not.
3 – Provokes inappropriate behaviors
According to Fatherly.com, the leading digital media brand for dads, the time it takes for parents to go through their children’s messages may not reveal anything important. And if your child finds this out, it can change or affect your relationship with them. They may feel that you are controlling them, which can trigger rebellious behavior. Experts say that they may decide to engage in risky behaviors and keep them a secret from you as a way to make themselves feel more in control. These behaviors include drinking alcohol, smoking, sneaking out, and more.
Dr. Steve Schlozman, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that this could also impact a child’s self-esteem. Reading their messages without their permission may make them feel that you don’t trust them. As a result, it can undermine the confidence they need to help them take age-appropriate risks such as participating in a competition or making new friends.
What Parents Should Do
Communicate. It’s better to talk to your children instead of going through their private messages without their consent. John Duffy, a family psychologist based in Chicago and author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” said that parents should establish rules with their kids about using phones and make sure they know that you’re concerned with their safety.
“The mistake we make as parents is that we aren’t clear in advance that sometimes we will look at their phones,” Duffy said.
According to GreatSchools.org, an online site that offers expanded information about important aspects of school quality, it’s okay to guide children with their phones especially if they don’t know how to use them. Experts say that they could use this as an opportunity to help them learn to navigate potential dangers. Nancy Darling, professor of psychology at Oberlin College, suggested establishing a framework of mutual trust and honesty when it comes to kids’ phones.
“Every time you talk about trust, every time you talk about boundaries starting when they’re little, you are building on this idea that they are trustworthy,” Darling said.
Darling added that setting up that foundation of trust and privacy with a child will pay off in the tween years and beyond. Respecting a child’s privacy allows them to develop intimacy with their parents and to trust their parents. “When parents respect their children’s judgment and privacy boundaries, kids are more likely to ask for help when they need it. They don’t need to defend their privacy, it’s being respected. We also know that when parents invade privacy, kids increase barriers and defend their privacy by lying. Parents invade more. Kids lie more. It’s a downward spiral,” she said.
Every parent faces this dilemma at one time or another, whether it's regarding text messages or Instagram posts. However, it would be better to discuss appropriate phone behavior, set consequences, and help them understand the dangers of the online world.