You may have wondered why teenagers, who are so quick to post everything about themselves online, cling so desperately to their “right to privacy.” Seems highly paradoxical, right? Understanding why they’re so quick to reveal themselves to the Internet or to their friends, yet so reluctant to share anything with us, requires stepping into their shoes and thinking like them.
Why do teens want privacy so badly?
They yearn for privacy because of their understanding of it. In their minds, more privacy = more freedom. Parents invading privacy is practically a fate worse than death! They don’t want to be told what they can and can’t do, who they can or can’t talk to, or what they should or shouldn’t spend their time doing. But they don’t necessarily want privacy in general, just privacy from the people who might not understand them or tell them that what they’re doing is wrong or unhealthy.
Unfortunately, as much as they might want that understanding of privacy and freedom to be true, it’s just not. God didn’t set up our world that way, and pretending He did only hurts us in the long run.
So what’s the correct understanding of it?
True privacy isn’t about secrecy; it’s about protection.
Genesis 3 tells us of Adam and Eve’s desire to hide and clothe themselves after sinning. (That’s a stark contrast from before they were tempted when they were naked and felt no shame.) Why? Because they now had something to hide (sin). So the need for privacy is not part of God’s original design, but instead a result of the fall.
This view of privacy explains why our teenagers both long for and fear intimacy. They want to be known and accepted, yet they fear that being known will mean being held accountable for their sinful desires and temptations. So they isolate themselves from those who might hold them accountable (“Don’t judge me, Mom!”) while simultaneously laying themselves bare for the rest of the world. This perspective on privacy also reveals that more privacy doesn’t lead to more freedom; instead, it leads to enslavement to our sin.
The reality is that we do live in a fallen world, so we need some level of privacy in order to protect our modesty and dignity, as well as others’. (We need privacy when we relieve ourselves, when we get dressed, or even when we discuss sensitive topics.) Too little privacy means that we are enslaved to the control of others in one way or another.
Conversely, too much privacy is a bad thing. Rather than leading to more freedom, it eventually leads to less freedom because we become enslaved to our desires and to sin (a great example is pornography addiction).
As adults who love Christ, we (hopefully) resist the temptation to conceal our sin and ourselves. We know that we only flourish when we live as God designed us to live— known by and accountable to a loving God and community—not when we give in to the dysfunction—isolation, and enslavement to our sin—brought about by the Fall.
Thus, as we grow up and become adults, our goal should be to live in the sweet spot between too much and too little privacy. And as parents, our goal should be to help our teens reach the sweet spot by the time they head out on their own.
How can I help my kids desire healthy privacy?
- Pause. Dr. Townsend says in Boundaries with Teens that before creating and implementing boundaries, we should pause and take some time to recall what it was like to be a teenager. Teen privacy isn’t new, it’s just changed since we were their age. The more we can empathize with our teens, the better we’ll be at parenting them.
- Model good boundaries. The main way our kids will learn from us is by picking up our habits. We need good boundaries and accountability in our own lives first. If we don’t have them, our teens won’t learn good privacy habits from us—and they will call out our hypocrisy when we try to make them have them.
- Have an ongoing conversation. There is no one-size-fits-all solution that applies to every teenager everywhere for all of time. What worked when your child was 8 will most likely not work when he/she is 16. So talk with your child about what those changing privacy restrictions look like and why.