Children have a right to privacy

The latest proposal from David Cameron’s ‘Advisor on Childhood’, Claire Perry, is that parents should ‘snoop’ on their children’s texts. Apparently it’s ‘bizarre that parents treat youngsters’ internet and mobile exchanges as private’, as reported in the Daily Mail.

For those of us who work in the privacy field – and indeed for anyone who works or has knowledge of children’s rights – it’s Claire Perry’s ideas that are bizarre. In fact, I’d go a lot further: to anyone who pays any real attention to their children, that kind of idea should be bizarre. Children have a right to privacy – and not in the technical, legal sense (though in that too, because it’s enshrined in Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK has both signed and ratified) but in what I would call the real, natural, sense. They want privacy. They need privacy. They demand privacy. Anyone who has children, who spends time with and listens to their children, who respects their children should be able to see that.

Part of that privacy – perhaps the most important part of that privacy – relates to privacy from their parents. That’s the part that children are most likely to care about too – they’re not so worried about the government snooping on them, or companies gathering their personal details for marketing purposes – but they do care about, and need to have some control over, what their parents know about their private thoughts. And we, as parents, need to understand that and respect that – if we are to understand and respect our children. If you want to know what your child is thinking about and caring about, and what they might be doing in their private lives, the best way, as the excellent @SturdyAlex tweeted this morning, is to ‘foster a relationship with them where they trust you enough to tell you’.

Of course the extent to which this is true varies from child to child and from age to age, but children all want and need privacy, and if we don’t understand and respect that all we’ll do is make them less likely to respect and to trust us – and hence more likely to find ways to hide the stuff that really matters from us.

So, Mr Cameron, and Ms Perry, don’t snoop on your children’s texts – or encourage anyone else to. Encourage them to listen to their children more, to respect their children more, to build better relationships to their children. Help your children to help themselves…

15 thoughts on “Children have a right to privacy

  1. Good article. People easily forget that children are humans too.

    I will soon start editing the ‘Think of the Children’ episode of my privacy doc. I have some good stuff already, but if I find gaps and need more interviews to fill them, who would you recommend in terms of human rights as applied to children?

  2. I’m not sure I agree with either you or Claire Perry here. As a parent, I don’t just have a moral responsibility but a legal obligation towards my children to protect them from potential harm. And that duty – in both senses – overrides privacy issues.

    Obviously, as my children get older then part of growing up is learning to handle things themselves without mum and dad always looking over their shoulder. And it’s important, as a parent, that I give them the opportunity to learn those lessons by giving them the privacy in which to do so. It would be bad parenting not to grant them that, and I’m certainly not in favour of bad parenting!

    It’s important to recognise that gaining privacy is a graduated thing. The level of privacy I’d give to a 15 year old is very, very different to what I’d give a 5 year old, for example. But even at the top end of the age scale, there are some things in which any responsible parent will still need to pry, even if only rarely. I’m not planning on routinely reading my children’s text messages, for example, but I reserve the right to confiscate the phone and examine its contents if necessary. Ditto with their Internet usage: it’s my network and nobody uses it without me being able to know what they’re doing with it. I won’t necessarily enforce my rights, but I won’t disregard them either.

    Ultimately though, as far as minors are concerned, privacy is a privilege rather than a right. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to point that out, and I don’t think parents should be afraid to make sure their children realise that. The fact that some people become “helicopter parents” who are incapable of ever letting their offspring spread their wings and fly alone is certainly a major issue, and if that’s the kind of attitude that Claire Perry is advocating then I strongly disagree with it. But the solution to that is not to go to the other extreme and advocate irresponsible parenting which treats privacy as an excuse not to care.

    • I agree with most of what you say – and privacy as a right is a right held in balance with other rights. Part of a parent’s skill is to know how to keep that balance, and when to ‘invade’ privacy in order to protect the child. My belief is that we mostly take the protection side of things too far, and end up actually endangering our children by not allowing them to learn the skills or the independence that they need to thrive.

      Again, as you say, the position for a five year old is very different for a fifteen year-old – which is explicitly recognised in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which effectively suggests that children ‘grow into’ their independence and rights: not at fixed dates, but as their maturity develops. That’s as true with privacy as it is with all the other rights.

  3. Interesting this. I do know someone who joined a social networking site so that she could “keep an eye” on her son. I said she was snooping. She disagreed. She doesn’t like some of what he writes on the site, it’s not bad stuff he’s writing but maybe that he fancies someone etc. So I did point out that if she didn’t want to know about his crushes etc then she should leave the site. She hasn’t. Her son gets annoyed with her.

    The other thing I pointed out to her – how would she have felt at his age if her parents knew everything about every crush or heartbreak she had had? She said she wouldn’t have liked it.

    I can understand, with news reports fairly frequently about cyber/on line bullying, that parents worry about their children on line and what not, but it’s a bit like me sitting in the park on a Friday night when I was a teenager and my parents loitering in the bushes watching everything I was doing.

    • I know teens who keep two Facebook profiles – one that they allow their parents to see, and even ‘friend’ their parents on it, and the other that they do their ‘real’ stuff on. One of the problems is the whole mantra about cyber/online-bullying is misconceived. There’s empirical evidence from a long term study from Canada (I’ll have to dig out the link) that casts a huge amount of doubt on the whole approach taken by schools – it doesn’t work, kids don’t trust it, and end up finding their own ways…

  4. I agree with you Paul (and have written on children and privacy John, if you want to check my publications page at Cardiff University Law School) but I don’t think invoking the UNCRC* is relevant to Ms Perry. The Westminster government (unlike the Welsh Government) does not take the UNCRC into account in its decision making. There is quite a bit of literature on the moral and psychological aspects of the development of young people’s need for privacy as they grow older, as Mark suggests.
    *although must admit to citing it quite often myself!

    • Thanks Julie – and I’ll have to re-read your stuff! You’re right about the UNCRC – it’s the most signed and probably most ignored convention in the world. Lip service is paid at best…

  5. Thanks for a great article, a much needed one in a country like England where you still can find hotels where your dog is welcome as a guest but not your children. Having children is not a status thing that you can use to show off. They are individuals and a lifelong love that sometimes will give you a lot of pain, but you must never give up on them. Remember that it was we who chose to have children not the child who chose us. It is our damned duty to provide the children with so much confidence and love that they know it’s us they can turn to whatever they encounter. Many argue in these situations that: I pay the bills, the internet, the PC, the phone, the TV, etc. so I have the right to confiscate these things, the right to spy, the right to decide what they can and can’t do with these things. I wonder if they do the same towards their partner? If they do it’s a bad case. I would recomend neuroscientist Matti Bergström’s book: The child is the last slave. It will make one or two parent get their coffee in their windpipe and that is just the titlen.

  6. Agree with this article and most of the comments. I always told my children, from when they were about 10 that I would on occasion do spot checks on them without their knowledge, and I told them why and they were quite ok with it, it was the pay-off for them of getting an increase in their freedom. It worked well, by and large, and I hardly ever did ‘invade’ their privacy although there were a few occasions.

    Anyway, later in life they have told me a few things they did which I never did know about and which make my hair stand on end …happily their guardian angels must have been looking after them and they have turned out quite well actually.

  7. This is an amazing article. Children may be minors however they need privacy and respect as well. Some people may disagree and say that they indeed should spy on their child’s messages. However, the bond between the parent and child is important. They deserve the privacy. Knowing this myself, children can be a warden to themselves if the feel as if they don’t get enough privacy to a point in which the situation can worsen and the bond will grow weaker. I love this article

  8. I agree with the article completely but if the child is being cyber bullied, cyber bullying, sneaking off for parties, etc. The parent should watch their social media and texts for the protection of the child. It’s also acceptable to see what they post on your account, If they make it public the parent is aloud to look at it. Just you’re a parent doesn’t mean you can’t look at what they post, it’s public for everyone to see. What’s public the parent can look at without invading privacy.

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