“I’m really worried about my daughter. I don’t know who she’s talking to, and now she’s even bringing her boyfriend into our house when I’m not at home. I didn’t know giving her privacy on her phone would result in this.”
I could see how distraught Amy was at her 16-year-old daughter Betty’s behaviour over the past few months.
Wanting to offer her sound advice, I turned to Chong Ee Jay, a Family Life Educator with Focus on the Family Singapore.
Balancing a child’s autonomy and his privacy can be a challenge, but here are some helpful guidelines.
“The device should be seen as a loan instead of belonging completely to your child. And you should have full view of your child’s usage on the device.”
Ee Jay shares that it is typically not recommended to give kids aged 12 and under a device.
Of course, you might argue that schools these days require the use of technology for education. But your child needs to understand that the device is for the purpose of communication and studies, and not entertainment.
For example, one helpful way is to set up parental controls on the device you give to them, especially for entertainment apps such as games, YouTube, and the Internet browser.
This way, if the child wants to access these apps, they will need to ask you for access.
Ee Jay elaborates, “Access to entertainment apps should be given only with your permission. The device given to your child should be seen as a loan instead of belonging completely to your child. And you should have full view of your child’s usage on the device.”
With your child’s mind still developing, it is critical that we take active efforts to curb device use. “The online space is filled with a mix of good and bad content, and your child does not yet have the maturity and knowledge to keep themselves safe.”
This is reinforced through global guidelines. We see that almost all online activities and platforms do not allow users below 13 to set up an account.
Another way is to learn from the technology entrepreneurs who invented these devices.
In late 2010, Steve Jobs revealed to New York Times journalist Nick Bilton that his children had never used the iPad.
Jobs explained, “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.”
Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, enforced strict time limits on every device in his home, and refused to allow his children to use screens in their bedrooms.
But what happens when the child grows older? Are such limits still necessary?
Ee Jay explains that in an ideal world, we would hope that a child’s maturity linearly equates to their age and we can therefore give them more autonomy as they grow. But reality is often not as neat and tidy.
“Greater autonomy on devices is given upon considering child’s age and maturity and when they have demonstrated responsible behaviour.”
He encourages parents to consider the first ownership of a device as a rite of passage.
For example, when a child turns 13, a device is often needed for the purpose of communication on school-related matters, especially on WhatsApp. Class chat groups, CCA chat groups, and social connection with peers on social media platforms are typical examples. Personal learning devices are also purchased for use in most schools during Secondary 1.
Treating it as a rite of passage means there needs to be conversations on rules, expectations, and consequences of flouting the rules.
It may be helpful to draft a contract containing these elements:
“Explaining why is important. We can say, ‘If we wish to access your phone, we will let you know. We do this because we want to ensure your safety.’”
It is not recommended for the child to be given full privacy at the beginning.
Explaining why is important; we can say something as simple as, “We respect your privacy and will not invade your privacy without your knowledge. For example, if we wish to access your phone, we will let you know. We do this because we want to ensure your safety.”
The degree of privacy given is dependent on your child’s maturity and track record of responsible usage.
We should also emphasise that the device is a privilege that can be removed if rules are flouted.
When Amy began imposing limits on Betty’s phone usage, such as by refusing to pay for her data plan, Betty struck back with a vengeance. She refused to talk to her mother for days. When Amy asked Betty something, Betty would just stare at her.
Imposing limits didn’t seem to work that easily.
Ee Jay recommends a different approach. He says, “We need to engage in ongoing conversations with them to better understand what is driving their needs for devices and for privacy.
“Do they experience a strong need to connect with their peers online? Are there things that the child is trying to hide from his parents due to its inappropriate nature? Reprimanding or giving a straight “No!” response tends to shut the door for future conversations.”
He recommends 4 simple steps:
We’ve all heard how important it is to connect with our children. But as parents, it’s often hard to do because we have different commitments to juggle.
Remember that trust is a bank that needs to be deposited slowly through quality time, conversation, and love.
So even as we push our children out to spread their wings, there are times when we need to pull them close by setting limits on how much privacy they can have.
Balancing supervision and autonomy when it comes to devices is tricky. But ultimately, remembering why you do it will make the tension easier to navigate.
For privacy reasons, pseudonyms have been used in this article.
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