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When does intervening cross the line from caring to violating privacy?

To butt in, or back off — every day, we confront those questions.

We want to help, to watch out for others. But we don't want to interfere.

So what do you do when: Your friend has had four drinks and wants to drive home? Or your elderly mom, who forgets where she is, won't give up her home?

"The most difficult decisions we make in life are when core values clash," says Ellis Gesten, a clinical psychologist at the University of South Florida. "The responsibility to care for others vs. the right to privacy — those are two of the hardest things to balance."

The news of this week brought three such conflicts.

There was the Pasco County tree trimmer who told his boss to come down after he slashed his leg with a chain saw, who watched his boss bleed to death 40 feet up that pine tree.

There was the Bartow preacher whose wife shut herself in their bedroom to pray and fast. Family members didn't want to disturb her. After 26 days, they finally forced the door open and found her dead.

And there was the mom in Deerfield Beach whose 15-year-old daughter was in a medically induced coma after being beaten by another 15-year-old. Police said the attack was triggered by text messages the girl sent from school.

The mom couldn't have known what was happening, but she says she wishes she had talked to her daughter more about texting.

And what if the tree trimmer had ignored his boss' wishes and called 911 right away? What if the preacher had defied his wife's request and checked on her?

• • •

In other cultures, people are protective of each other, says Tina Tannen, a mental health counselor at the University of Florida. Family and friends feel more of a connection and obligation to one another. Even strangers don't hesitate to interfere.

"But the United States has this image of rugged individuality," Tannen says. "You tell yourself, 'I'm overreacting,' because you don't want the other person to be mad at you."

That could happen, she says. But so what? At least they would still be here.

When you worry about someone, Tannen says, the first step should be to get all the information you can. Don't make assumptions. Ask questions:

Are you okay? What can I do to help? What's really going on?

"You just have to know enough to figure out if you have to step in."

• • •

Whether you speak up often depends on your relationship with the person you're trying to protect, Tannen says.

A boss can force his bleeding employee to come down from a pine tree because the trimmer doesn't want to disobey his boss. A husband can knock on his wife's bedroom door, but the preacher doesn't want to disturb her time with God. A mother could scroll through her teenager's cell phone, but she might not want to invade her privacy.

But if you're truly concerned, you need to do something. Sometimes, the boss doesn't know best. Sometimes even God can use a little help.

• • •

"And when it comes to teenagers," says Gwenn O'Keeffe, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, "there's no such thing as privacy."

O'Keeffe, who runs a Boston health care consulting company, studies adolescents' digital interactions. Besides being a national expert for the academy, she is raising two daughters, ages 16 and 12.

She knows chat rooms and texting are integral parts of their communication with their peers. She just makes them earn her trust before they solo on the Internet.

"We have to help our children, especially our teenagers, learn to navigate cyberspace and see what's appropriate, as well as what could happen," she says.

You don't need to snoop, she says. You just need to know.

O'Keeffe and her husband tell their daughters they're going to do random phone checks. Any messages that the girls send from their parent-paid phones might be read by their parents.

O'Keeffe doesn't hide her phone inspections. She opens her daughters' cells in front of them: Who is this? Tell me about this guy.

The girls might get upset at the intrusion. But at least they know she cares. And if tension is brewing in the texts, there might be time to defuse a pending fight.

It's hard trying to figure out when to intrude, Tannen and O'Keeffe agree. It's hard to know what to say.

But the only alternative is regret.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at or (727) 893-8825.

When does intervening cross the line from caring to violating privacy? 03/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 11:02pm]
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