Is Snooping on Teenagers Ever O.K.?

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Adolescence comes with a thorny problem: Teenagers suddenly yearn for privacy just when their lives are expanding to include a range of risky new opportunities.

Whether or not they have something worrisome to hide, normally developing tweens often start to shut their bedroom doors and become cagey about their time online. And when teenagers act aloof, their parents often feel tempted, if not duty bound, to secretly search bedrooms and surreptitiously scan online activity to ensure that their child isn’t engaged with drugs, drinking or digital misdeeds.

Spying on teenagers, which most parents don’t actually do, belongs to the category of parenting tactics with which I deeply empathize and almost always counsel against.

For starters, there are potential legal complexities. “Parents have the right to surveil their own children,” noted Avidan Cover, an associate law professor at Case Western Reserve University, “but those rights don’t always extend to other children or adults. They can get into murky legal territory if they find themselves surveilling other participants in a conversation.”

Then there’s an obvious problem shared by spies at every level: At what point do you reveal that you have been spying? Some parents might willingly blow their own cover, hoping that the potential boost to their teenager’s safety will outweigh the inevitable loss of their teenager’s trust. Others might maintain their surveillance, trying not to get caught while they continue to collect data. Both are precarious positions.

Helpfully, recent research calls into question the utility of snooping and suggests better approaches for parents who are concerned that something might be amiss.

Adults who suspect their adolescent is up to something may feel compelled to cross privacy boundaries, but research on Dutch families found that the teenagers of prying parents weren’t misbehaving any more than those whose parents didn’t snoop. Notably, the same study instead linked parents’ snooping to their worries about the strength of their relationship with their teenager. According to Skyler Hawk, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “the act of snooping seems to say more about what the parents are feeling than what their kids are doing.”

For parents who find themselves fretting about their connection to their teenagers, a new study in the Journal of Adolescence suggests that snooping is unlikely to make things better. A survey of 455 adolescents found that teenagers who believed their parents had secretly listened in on their conversations or searched through their possessions without permission shared less information with their folks than teenagers who felt their parents respected appropriate boundaries. This result lines up with another study finding that parental snooping may trigger or perpetuate a cycle in which adolescents become more and more furtive at home.

“When parents engage in behaviors that teenagers see as privacy invasions,” Dr. Hawk said, “it backfires because parents end up knowing less.”

So, if parents suspect that their teenager might be in trouble, what should they do?

The prevailing wisdom suggests a straightforward solution: Start by asking. Though teenagers are usually tight-lipped about topics they deem personal, such as how they spend their free time or allowance, research on parent-adolescent communication shows that teenagers believe their parents do have the right to know about choices that might be unhealthy or unsafe, such as smoking or drinking.

However, according to Judith Smetana, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, “This finding comes with a twist: If kids are already involved in risky behavior, they tend not to tell their parents.” In such situations, teenagers said they feared that their parents would respond with disapproval, punishment or both. Accordingly, Dr. Smetana suggests that we might preface our questions about risky behavior with the reassurance that, “We’re not going to get mad and you’re not going to get in trouble. We just want to know that you are O.K.”

If things are not O.K. — perhaps the teenager owns up to harrowing weekend activities — at least the problem is out in the open and the parents have made clear their stance of aiming to shield the adolescent from harm rather than dish out discipline.

And parents of teenagers should settle in for some ongoing negotiations. Even when all is well, parents and teenagers routinely disagree about what should be considered private.

“Adolescents consistently think that they should have more autonomy than their parents think they should have,” Dr. Smetana said. “And just when parents have worked one thing through,” she adds, “they will find that there’s a new topic to hash out because teenagers’ autonomy is always increasing.”

As Dr. Hawk advises parents, “Keep in mind that you are not going to get past adolescence without having some kind of conflict about privacy.” To that I would add that raising teenagers invariably comes with a measure of anxiety, especially when children who used to share themselves with us warmly and freely come to seem distant or inscrutable.

If that anxiety becomes overwhelming and our efforts to communicate fail to bring clarity, might snooping ever be warranted? According to Dr. Hawk, “If done at all, it should be reserved for extreme circumstances when there is really no other recourse. And parents should be prepared for adolescents to react very negatively, regardless of what is found.”

The impulse to snoop, like every other questionable parenting choice, almost always comes from a loving and protective place. Rather than giving into it too quickly, though, we might treat the urge to spy as a reminder to reflect on where we stand with our teenagers. Do we trust them, and do they trust us? If not, what steps could we take to arrive at a heartfelt yes?