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Advice for Parents on Privacy and Kids

Do kids have a right to privacy? If so, how much? Experts offer their insights – and they may surprise you.

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Children will absorb privacy lessons on their own and recalibrate new rules in reaction to "privacy turbulence." For example, they will no longer share private information with a close friend who can't keep a secret.

Parents must work to prevent kids from making new rules that shut them out, as well.

No snooping, parents

The teenage years are a time of experimentation, and many teens are reluctant to talk about sensitive subjects with their parents.

This is when things can get really tricky, but "snooping" is not the answer, Petronio says.

"A lot of times parents think everything in the house belongs to them and anything children claim is not really theirs until they move out," Petronio says. "That's a bad scenario."

Before poking through possessions or online caches, Petronio says parents should simply ask their child if they can take a look. Thirty-five years of research into children's privacy issues, across cultures and contexts, shows that 95 percent of the time children will say yes, she says.

"You're allowing your child to have control with the understanding that whatever they do in that private space isn't going to harm them in any way," she says. "You give them the responsibility of caring for themselves and doing the right thing, because in the end they know when something is wrong."

What if parents inadvertently come across something private online, in a drawer or from a third party that presents a real concern? They must approach their child with care or risk having them withdraw even more, Petronio warns.

"When a parent confronts them, they're going to recalibrate new privacy rules that will be so hard and fast, it will be very hard for the parent to break it down."

Lessons in online privacy

Many parents worry more about offering their children privacy online than in the real world, but both realms should be treated the same, according to Hemanshu Nigam, CEO of SSP Blue, an online security consultancy based in Beverly Hills, Calif.

"From a child's point of view, they don't see a distinction between online and offline. They hear the privacy message, and they will apply it everywhere. To them it's all one and the same," he says.

Parents may tend to panic about the Pandora's box that can be opened through texting, tweeting and surfing the web, along with sharing photos and information.

Or they may feel intimidated by new technology, apps and features. Nigam recommends parents ask their children for help.

Set up weekly tech sessions and ask your child to teach you something new each week, he suggests. It's an opportunity for you to work together to set up boundaries and controls, as well as talk about privacy issues, pitfalls and your values as a family.

Just as employees know their company can track their computer usage, tweens and teens should understand that their online activity can be monitored – but experts say at some, point parents need to trust their children or risk alienating them.

"To some extent, the values of the parents have been laid down by the time (kids) reach puberty," says Dr. Romeo Vitelli, a Toronto psychologist.

Teenagers need the opportunity to succeed and fail on their own without a parent constantly watching over them.

"If a child doesn't give any indication they've betrayed the trust, then that means they've earned the right to be trusted," Vitelli says. "If a child knows that a parent is looking over their shoulder, they're going to be less likely to be open about what's going on."

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