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Is it ever acceptable to snoop on your teen?

What should your boundaries be when it comes to your children's safety? Is it OK to snoop and intrude on their privacy?

Whether or not they have something troubling to hide, normally developing teens frequently start closing their bedroom doors and become guarded about their online time.

When teenagers behave distantly, parents are often inclined to discreetly check bedrooms and scan online activity to verify that their child isn’t involved with drugs, alcohol, or cybercrime.

However, spying on your teen may not be the best approach.

There may be legal ramifications

“Parents have the right to monitor their own children,” says Avidan Cover, an associate law professor, “but those rights do not always extend to other children or adults. Parents may find themselves in legal trouble if they catch themselves surveilling other people in a chat.”

Then there’s the obvious issue that all spies face: When do you reveal that you’ve been snooping? Some parents may willingly blow their own cover, assuming that the possible benefit to their teen’s protection outweighs the probable loss of trust.

Snooping breaks a teen’s trust

“The act of snooping seems to reveal more about what the parents are feeling than what their children are doing,” says Dr Skyler Hawk, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

A new study published in the Journal of Adolescence reveals that snooping is unlikely to help parents worried about their relationship with their children.

According to a poll of 455 adolescents, teenagers who suspected their parents secretly listened in on their talks or searched through their belongings without permission shared less information with their parents than teenagers who believed their parents respected proper limits. When parents breach their teens’ privacy, it backfires since parents end up knowing less.

So, what should parents do if they feel their teen is in trouble?

The conventional wisdom recommends a simple solution: Start a conversation!

The importance of open communication

Although teenagers are usually tight-lipped about personal topics, research on parent-adolescent communication shows that teenagers believe their parents have a right to know about potentially unhealthy or dangerous choices, such as smoking or drinking.

If things aren’t going well – say your teen admits to dangerous weekend activities – at least the issue is out in the open. Parents should reiterate to their teens that their aim is to help and protect them, not punish them.

Could snooping be justified if communication efforts fail to offer clarity?

“If done at all, snooping should be kept for extreme cases when there is no other choice. And parents should expect backlash from their teens, regardless of what is discovered,” adds Dr Hawk.

Like any other problematic parenting decision, the desire to snoop is nearly usually motivated by love and protection. Rather than succumbing to the impulse to spy, we should use it as a wake-up call to reconsider our relationship with our teenagers. Do we believe them, and do they believe us? If not, what actions can we take to get a heartfelt yes?

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