Why I Won't Give My Kids The Same Privacy I Had As A Kid

by Brandi Jeter Riley
photo credit: Getty Images | Nick David

The other night, we caught my 9-year-old daughter watching TikTok videos in her bed. She was under the covers, with an old cell phone that had connected to our WiFi. She and I had discussed the app before, and I told her that I would need to research it before she’d be able to use it. I knew that whatever my research about TikTok said, she wasn’t going to be able to use it without my supervision. And certainly never in her bedroom by herself. She’s just a preteen, and I know how dangerous social media can be when parents aren’t involved.

Technology has changed the game as it pertains to children and privacy. I remember having a lot of time to myself when I was a kid. I would be in my bedroom for hours with the door closed, reading or working on projects. There were days when no one would check on me from breakfast all the way to dinner time. I wasn’t doing much. I’d maybe make collages with pictures of boys from my favorite boy bands, or write scripts out of imaginary conversations with my friends. There were no cell phones or tablets or internet back then. My mom and dad felt confident that I was safe. What could possibly happen to me while I was in my bedroom, under their roof?

I was in middle school when my parents bought me a computer and put it in my bedroom. It was a Commodore 64, a big ole clunky thing that I couldn’t really do too much with due to my lack of coding skills. It came with a couple of games. There were some primitive applications, too. I mostly just used it to type up stories. Unlike today, there wasn’t a way for strangers to connect with me through the computer. I don’t think any of us even imagined that would ever become a thing. I was left alone, still, to do whatever it is I wanted in my bedroom, just now with a computer.

Fast forward a few decades and I have no plans of letting my children have computers in their rooms. I definitely never planned to have cell phones in the bed, under the covers. While my parents had no concerns about outsiders negatively influencing me, that’s all I think about. My husband and I work very hard to maintain our daughter’s innocence and not have her grow up too fast. At times it seems that every single convenience in our modern life is working against us.

We love how the Amazon Echo makes our home more “smart.” We don’t like that it might be listening in on our daughter’s conversations with her friends. It’s great that Google makes research for homework much easier. It sucks when a misspelled word brings up softcore porn videos on YouTube. Or leads them to some website where they end up with messaging with a grown adult pretending to be a kid.

Oh, and let’s go back to YouTube. Home of weirdos who make videos that look like they’re for kids then turn sexual or violent in the middle. I thought it was safe for my daughter to watch on her own. There have been a couple of times, though, when I looked at the search history and discovered that she accidentally stumbled onto an adult topic that was (thankfully) over her head. Once I realized how easy it was for that to happen, we put a lockdown on the account, and told her she could only watch videos when she was in the room with an adult.

My parents never had to worry about that.

I was in the 10th grade when I got a pager, and my dad put restrictions on it. A pager! The only thing I could do is see the numbers of people who had paged me, but I had a 10 PM curfew anyway. After that, I had to put the pager away. It was kind of dumb since it’s not like anything other than a phone number would pop up. It’s not like now where kids can send everything from a text to an image to actual video calls. Anyway, my dad told me that he didn’t want strange boys texting me when I was supposed to be in bed. I would rather that than what I’m up against now.

Now that I’m a parent myself, I can say that I see what my dad was trying to do, because I’m trying to do the same for my daughter. I want to keep her safe. Things have changed so much since when I was a kid, though. The angsty teenage years where we’d brood in our bedroom were part of growing up. Now, it’s too dangerous to give our kids that type of space. There are too many opportunities for people who mean them harm to gain access to them, manipulate them, and really cause damage to their lives.

There’ve been teens who have been encouraged to commit suicide by people via text messages. There are way too many cases of children meeting someone online and then leaving home to meet up with a stranger. Kids are having their nude pictures go viral because, one evening, in the privacy of their home, they decided to take a picture and send it to someone they thought cared about them. Whole entire young lives are being destroyed by one bad choice. And it’s happening right under their parents’ noses. Behind closed doors. In the houses that they live in with their families.

Finding my daughter sneaking to watch videos scared the hell out of me. After she was sufficiently punished (no screens until further notice) and we explained why we were so upset (we talked about the dangers of the internet), I went through every inch of that cell phone. I looked at who she was following, and to see if she had downloaded any other apps. I was relieved to find that she had only been watching silly videos of kids her age doing age-appropriate things.

I know that we were lucky.

Gone are the days of teenagers having privacy. Nothing is private anymore thanks to the internet. Which means that nothing is private under my watch. As my kids get older, I’ll continue talking to them and encouraging them to be open with me about what they’re doing. I want them to trust me enough to be honest so I won’t have to snoop and they won’t have to sneak. If we don’t come to an agreement, though, I’m still going to be all up in their business regardless. They can have all of the privacy they want when they’re grown and out of my house.