Is Reading My Kid's Texts A Violation Of Her Privacy?

I would never read my daughter's diary — but this is different, right?

Good Enough Parent

Dear Good Enough Parent,

My daughter is 9, almost 10, and I have always said I would never read her diary, but I do read the texts she sends her friend from her iPad. I guess reading their texts feels more about keeping her safe around other people versus reading her own thoughts? But I don’t know, maybe they’re not that much different, and I am totally violating my kid’s privacy.

A few months ago, my mother shipped me a box of my childhood memorabilia from my teenage bedroom, which she was finally clearing out. There was a ticket stub from a 1998 Lauryn Hill concert, programs from my high-school plays, and of course, piles and piles of journals. If, like me, you were a ’90s b*tch, you also had such piles. Maybe you started with a diary that had a little lock and key and the words “Top Secret” written on the front, moved on to a crushed-velvet-covered journal, later found the sophistication of a smart, leather-bound spiral notebook.

Whatever the packaging, you filled these with your thoughts and feelings, meant for your eyes only. In one of the journals my mom sent me, I found a horrible assessment of my then-best-friend as “popular but un-pretty” — it only got nastier when I accused her of stealing my crush. What would have happened if these words had made it to my bestie? Disaster! Thank goddess for that lock and key, for the relative secrecy of something written on a page and hidden under your pillow. The journaling did its work of letting me get a hard moment out of my system so I could spare my friend’s feelings and my own dignity.

Diaries — mine, yours, your daughter’s, don’t need to be eavesdropped on because, in most cases (I might break this rule if, for example, I thought my child was suicidal, though even then I would try and find another way of learning how they felt), what is said there doesn’t have a life outside of those pages. Phone calls generally follow the same rule (even though I did once secretly hang out on the line while my friend Nicole asked Dan Chen if he liked me — he did!). Social media posts, on the other hand, very much do. They are not, by any measure, private. They are very much for public consumption. Even a text, especially in the hands of someone whose brain has not yet fully developed, can very quickly transcend whatever assumed privacy it was originally sent under. To distribute my seventh grade sh*t-talking, you would have had to commit a petty theft and get yourself to a Kinko’s. But all you’d have to do today is screenshot and send.

Kids need to learn social media literacy with what teachers call the “gradual release of responsibility.”

This is why many parents, though often conflicted, insist on monitoring their children’s electronic communications to some extent. It’s not just about making sure your kid is not being a dick or talking about sex or what have you. Parents surveil because we know these messages, when made public, can have repercussions that go far beyond the offhand expression of a thought or feeling. The highly mercurial moods and opinions of often hormonal children, ones who are even worse than we are about thinking ahead, now have the potential to become permanent record. It’s a heavy burden to bear!

How and when you monitor really depends on your own personalities and the developmental level of your child. A lot of parents have an understanding with their children that what they do on their phone or iPad can be snooped on at the parent’s discretion. This can be explained not just as surveillance but as coaching — like learning to drive, kids need to learn social media literacy with what teachers call the “gradual release of responsibility.” It starts out with modeling and a lot of hand-holding (this might mean checking your kids communications every day) and giving feedback, then easing back when more trust is established and coming in for emergencies, then, eventually, full independence.

One parent I spoke to, Samantha, let her children practice sending messages to friends on her phone first, and she recommends it. “Give them access to the tools BEFORE they have their own device” went her thinking. “These are the training wheels.”

There are privacy issues here, of course, especially when it comes to texts rather than posts on TikTok or Instagram. That’s why collaborating with your child as much as possible and coming up with a clear plan that you both agree with is so essential. (Many parents recommend clarifying the conditions before the device is purchased.) You can ask your child about what they get out of communicating digitally with friends, why it’s important to them. Then you can talk to them about what it is and isn't for.

You might tell them that sharing incredibly personal confidences should happen over the phone or FaceTime or in person instead of text, for example. Same goes for gossiping about other people. My niece and her friends had a rule that they would only use social media for positive messages to one another — anything negative they had to say had to happen offline. Of course, all of this, like any boundaries you set for your child, is aspirational. It will likely be tested and stretched and reworked with time and experience. This is the work of parenting: setting out a compass for your child and doing what you can to help them navigate the route.

Of course, some parents don’t engage in this kind of monitoring at all, whether because they don’t feel it’s their place or they just aren’t worried about it (though one parent told me they hadn’t been and then regretted it once they eventually did check).

Samantha admits that the work of checking on your kid’s communications is not only exhausting but can become compulsive. But thanks to the combination of her daughter’s learning from her own misadventures, as well as her own efforts — she once jumped into her daughter's group chat to tell them that what they were saying about a friend was too mean for text — her daughter has learned to use messages and comment threads better. “She became less reactive and more responsive,” Samantha told me of her daughter, who even began telling her own friends “I don’t like to text about this; people can screenshot and the whole thing just gets more dramatic.” Samantha’s daughter recently read her a text to show she was proud of how she handled a situation.

Whether you decide to backseat-text for your kids or not, it’s important to remember that times have changed, kids are amazing but impulsive, and your guidance will not only be necessary but also change shape as they grow and different issues arise. Oh, to get your tween a diary, and have all their attempts at learning to be human amplified for an audience of one, and kept under lock and key! If we’re lucky, our own adult children will look back at the hard moments of their youth and feel that they had some agency over their own narratives, whether scribbled in sparkly purple gel pen or transmitted with care through the ether.

The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Let Sarah answer your questions about the messy realities of parenting! Send her your questions via this anonymous form or by emailing her at