Suzy reads every email her 15-year-old son writes to his girlfriend. How? Months ago, David borrowed his mother’s laptop. When he returned it, she realized that he’d forgotten to log out of his email account. Which means that when her son is in his bedroom emailing his girlfriend about what a control freak his mom is, his mother is in her home office down the hall, reading every word.
“I’m not an interfering snoop,” she says to me. “I’m an involved, caring parent.”
Suzy knew the moment David and his girlfriend starting kissing. She phoned Allie’s mom, and the two moms planned strategy. A couple of kisses? Not a problem. But they wanted to make sure things didn't get out of control.
David is personable and bright, Suzy tells me, but he’s also impulsive and immature. “I’m going to make sure he graduates high school and gets into college if it kills me,” she vows.
As for violating her son’s privacy? That’s a small price to pay, she feels, to achieve that goal.
Privacy is history
My friend Deb doesn’t have the same window into her own son’s private life, but sometimes when he’s in the shower, she’ll slip into his bedroom and take a peek at the browsing history on the laptop he’s left open on his desk.
“So what do you find?” I ask.
“Nothing special,” she shrugs. “Gaming, music, and some ogling at girls. All perfectly normal. But if he ever gets into anything weird or dangerous, I’ll know about it.”
Is there anything wrong with this snooping? “When our mom cleaned my brother’s room,” Deb says, “she used to find the magazines he’d stashed under his mattress. What’s the difference?”
Whenever George, an attorney in his fifties, writes a personal email, his 14-year-old son can read every line. Computer-savvy Sam set up and maintains both his dad’s and mom’s computers. His folks broke up two years ago, but because he continues to help them with everything computer-related, he’s able to access their email accounts.
When his mom remarried, Sam became the go-to computer person for his new stepdad as well. Which means that whenever his folks fire angry emails back and forth about custody and visitation, their son is in the loop, reading over their shoulders.
Beth and Ted are both retired teachers in their seventies. During one of our recent chats, Beth confided that she knows that her husband of 40 years visits girlie sites on the internet. “He has no idea that I access his browsing history,” she told me. “He stays up and looks at the sites after I go to sleep. In the morning, he sleeps in and I check out where he’s been over my morning coffee.” She grins. “It beats reading the obits.”
Does Ted's browsing trouble her? “It might bother me if our marriage wasn't strong,” she says, “but I figure this is what he does instead of being unfaithful. So, really, it works for both of us.”
“If he knew that you knew, would he be shocked?” I ask.
“Probably.” She smiles. “But he’ll never know.”
Revealing your secrets
I’m never surprised when “private” celebrity photos or “protected” corporate emails are leaked all over the web.
Internet privacy? There’s no such thing.
“Email is skywriting,” my pal the divorce lawyer often reminds me. “Never say or do anything online that you wouldn’t be comfortable reading about on the front page of your local newspaper.”
“If you reveal your secrets to the wind,” the poet Kahlil Gibran once said, “you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.”
And if you reveal your secrets to your laptop, you should not blame it for revealing them to your spouse, your mom, your boss, People Magazine or The Channel Ten News team.
The next time you go online, just imagine that the entire world is reading over your shoulder. It might encourage you to keep your secrets to yourself.
And if not? I look forward to reading all about you in the National Enquirer.
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