Parenting expert Michelle Icard recently published "8 Setbacks That Can Make a Child Success" a new book that aims to help parents and children navigate and grow from common mistakes kids make while growing up. Below is an excerpt from the book, where Icard writes about the failure that she found worries parents the most - failure for children to handle their feelings. Read on to learn about Icard's advice about how to set boundaries with your kid's tech when you're worried they're going through an emotionally difficult time.
Q: I know teen emotions are a roller coaster, but I can’t tell when the mood swings are normal or a call for help. My daughter keeps a journal and I want to read it and do a deep dive into her phone to make sure she’s okay. How can I know more about what’s going if she won’t tell me?
A: As far as diaries or journals go, I tell parents never to read them unless they believe their child is in imminent danger. Think of it as needing a warrant before you search a home. The police can’t just wonder if something illegal is happening in someone’s home, no matter how strange that person seems, or how suspicious their friends are, or how many neighbors complain about them. They need probable cause to search private property. Before you crack open the space where your child records their innermost thoughts, whether it’s an old-fashioned, leather-bound journal with a lock on it, a ratty spiral-bound notebook, or a Google Doc on a laptop, make sure you have probable cause based on facts, not hunches. If not, you run the risk of (a) losing your child’s trust completely because I know adults who have still not gotten over this violation from their own adolescence, and (b) putting things in your brain that were never meant for your eyes that are alternately horrifying and harmless. Journals can be a safe space to fantasize, so beware.
Phones, though, are a little bit different, depending on your child’s age. Phones are much more complex tools than notebooks. With younger kids, I encourage parents to establish with new ownership that phones will be monitored occasionally for safety and etiquette reasons. Like any tool you give your child, you are responsible for teaching them how to use that tool safely and politely. What is polite tool use? Not mowing your lawn or installing a new deck at 2:00 a.m., for example. The tool should be useful to you without being a burden, nuisance, or unreasonable interruption to others.
And while diaries are premised on privacy, phones are not. That said, and broadly speaking, as kids age through middle school, parents should monitor less and less because being micromanaged on technology just sends kids into deeper hiding spaces. Even though phones aren’t intended for privacy the way diaries are, teens still use them that way. This might make you want to scream, but picture this: you’re at a coffee shop with your friend, talking about her recent separation from her husband. It’s a deeply private conversation being held in a very public space. The man at the table next to you leans over and says, “I’m sorry but I couldn’t help myself. Maybe it’s not entirely your husband’s fault? It sounds to me like you’ve both done some things that are hard to come back from.”
You would be horrified, and rightly so, at the intrusion. Imagine telling the man to F off or whatever you’d say in a situation that weird, and then him coming right back with “Listen, if you didn’t want people to hear about this, you shouldn’t have talked about in such a public place. Maybe write it in your diary next time? You know whatever you say out here [waves arms around the coffee shop] can be heard by anyone and passed on forever.”
This is how our teens feel when we read their phones. Yes, technically, private things they share on a device are subject to public consumption if someone screenshots their texts or takes a photo of their Snapchat. But for parents to lean in and read every message feels like the coffee shop invasion. Sure, it’s not private by a certain definition, but is it meant for you?
Looking through a teen’s phone is not nearly the same violation as reading a diary, but the decision to do so should be based on concern that is rooted in a little evidence, not just a desire to know more about your child or a generic concern.
In short, considering the “whether and when” of snooping versus safety checks, it comes down to this: How much evidence do you already have? If you have reason to believe that your child may be engaging, or about to engage, in danger that they cannot come back from (plans to meet up with a man they met online, buying drugs, thoughts of hurting themselves or someone else), you should check. If you just have a hunch that they aren’t happy or in a fight with friends, talk with them, but don’t snoop.
Excerpted from 8 Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success by Michelle Icard. Rodale Books 2023.