Love, Loss, and Password Sharing: A Teenage Romance

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a front page story called “Young, in Love, and Sharing Everything, Including a Password,” about young people and the desire to share passwords with a significant other.  Quoted in the article is a teen who says, it’s “a sign of trust.  I have nothing to hide from him, and he has nothing to hide from me.”  She goes on to say, “I know he’d never do anything to hurt my reputation.”  Another says that she traded passwords with her boyfriend “so I could check his messages because I didn’t trust him.”  Even so, none of the teenagers in the article feel apprehensive about sharing a password with a close friend, even those who have had prior experiences go bad.  Also quoted in the article are parents and child psychologists, who all adhere to the idea that sharing passwords is unsafe.  One compares the pressures of password sharing to the pressures of teenage sex.  Another “had her three sons sign ‘digital contracts’ that outline terms for how much media they will consume, how they will behave online and that they will not share passwords.”  The final mother quoted “thinks young people are sometimes drawn to such behavior as they might be toward sex, in part because parents and others warn them against doing so.  ‘What worries me is we haven’t done a very good job at stopping kids from having sex, so I’m not real confident about how much we can change this behavior.”

My general critique of this article is aimed at its perspective.  The framing of the interviews presents a dispute between the old and wise adults and the young and foolish children.  As I read, old pangs of teenage angst resurfaced and I remembered the frequent thoughts I had on the theme of “adults just don’t understand.”  The article itself highlights that bad breakups can result in Facebook spamming, secret spreading, and malicious texting for teenagers who have let their passwords loose, but the adults featured only compare password sharing to sex.  Huh?  Once again, adults just don’t understand.  Password sharing and sex should never be a black-and-white, I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong issue.  All too often, teenagers worry that their parents analyze their actions this way, and all too often, the teenagers are actually right.

First of all, nobody should be trying to stop teenagers from having sex.  Teenagers will have sex when they are ready – and no amount of warning will stop them.  One day in high school, a guest speaker came to 9th grade Health class and gave everyone a “virginity key”.  I remember knowing and pious glances exchanged between the woman giving out the trinkets and the health teacher, and I remember giggles and eye rolls passing between the kids in class.  Our teacher was certain that our reactions meant that we had been taking lunch breaks to fondle each other behind the picnic tables, but what we were really saying was that we knew what sex was, we knew that there were good and bad times to have sex, and we knew that some people were ready to have sex before other people.  We were high school kids, not babies.  We started hearing about people having sex when I was in 7th grade.  The keeper of the keys, from our perspective, was woefully oblivious to our needs.  What high school aged kids, and maybe even middle-schoolers, need, is appropriate education about sex and what it comes with.  Health class should touch not only on pregnancy and diseases but also on the positive things that often connect with sex – good relationships, the opportunity to share yourself with another person, and love.  It seems to me that kids can’t be scared out of sex by these horror stories – all they do is push sex into the realm of the taboo, and once it’s there, proper education and discussion is hard to come by.  While every adult has been a teenager, not every adult can relate to being a teenager.  All too often, kids get either “I didn’t do those things when I was your age” or “Don’t do what I did when I was your age.”  And all too often, kids think, “Mom’s full of it – she definitely did these things when she was my age” or “Dad’s unfair – who said that he got to have fun and I don’t?”  Teenagers can be nurtured and raised without running the home like a prison camp or like a hippie commune.  No subject should be off-limits, and instead of writing teenagers off as hormone-filled rage pots, adults should push their children to talk and ask questions and create a dialogue around the family table.  When I was very small, my parents explained that swear words were very bad and that I should never use them toward other people.  They told me that I could say them to myself, if I wanted to know what they sounded like.  It is a lesson that has stuck with me to this day – their openness about something that I would certainly be curious about, and their willingness to treat a 5-year-old like a person who can understand things.  Instead of waiting until I innocently wandered over to a classmate and told him to “Shove a Lego up his ass,” my parents took swearing out of the taboo and explained it to me.  They did the same thing with sex and relationships and most other things.  I will always recall their openness and how it helped me – when treated with responsibility, people often return responsibility.

Password sharing (wait, is that what I was writing about?) should be treated in much the same way.  It certainly should not be banned – as Patti Cole, the mother quoted at the end of the article seems to think – because, like sex, it can’t be banned.  Teenagers should be properly educated about its benefits – if your partner has Netflix, for example – and its risks – if you save every email you’ve ever sent, including those steamy ones to your old fling.  But the choice should not be taken away.  Teenagers read the New York Times – yes, teenagers can read – and reading about adults who believe that they know best about everything, no discussion necessary, only pushes the two sides further from conversation.  Instead, passwords, which in some ways are as personal as one’s sex life, should be treated as such – it’s okay to keep them to yourself and it’s okay to share them, but there are risks and once you open yourself up, you accept the possible repercussions.  At best, nothing goes wrong.  At worst, a teenager has a bad experience, but it’s also a learning experience.  A 16-year-old in the article shared a password with her first boyfriend in 7th grade and he misused it after they broke up.  Now, at her wizened old age, “she would not have reservations about sharing her password with her new boyfriend.”  “I know this sounds kind of weird, but we have a different relationship.  We’re not in seventh grade.  I trust him in a different way, I suppose.”  Sage words from a sixteen-year-old.

In full disclosure, I share my passwords with my girlfriend.  And she shares hers with me.  Actually, we both have one password that we use for pretty much everything, which is the real problem.  But it’s much easier to live comfortably when I don’t have to get up and type in my password each time she wants to use my laptop.  And a few times I’ve sent messages from her Gmail to mine.  The act of password sharing does not mean that we read each other’s private conversations – we don’t need to.  We have a trusting relationship that has developed around a spirit of openness and friendship.  Some people’s relationships are different, and maybe they use each others passwords to do personal background checks.  But I’m almost positive that if untrusting people share passwords, each one knows what the other is up to.  Perhaps, one day, they will overcome their lack of trust, and otherwise they won’t last, and hopefully they’ll both change their passwords or risk being done in by a lack of maturity.  But any experience is one for growth, and even a negative experience can be made positive.  That, I think, is my gripe with the adults vs. children perspective of the article.  Password sharing is presented as a black-and-white thing – if it’s not good, it’s bad – and should not be examined on these terms.  It should be seen as a learning experience, first and foremost, a way to learn about trust and love and relationships and other people – all valuable things for teenagers making their way in the world.