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How to Spy on Your Child Online

It's a given that we generally know where our kids are each day, whom they're with, and what they're doing. But in the digital world, where even our youngest children are spending a growing amount of time, we're often reduced to the role of spectator, and many of us are reeling from a case of digital whiplash. Our kids, even little ones, may very well understand today's technology better than we do.

Kids today have only known a world that's cyber-filled, and technology is woven through every aspect of their lives. It informs their friendships, their education, even their understanding of the world. Meanwhile, we're scrambling to figure out which rules to set and how to enforce them.

The trouble is, this particular subject isn't covered in the parental playbook; that chapter hasn't been written yet, and society hasn't had time to form standards. We have a drinking age and a driving age, but there's no solid conventional wisdom about at what age kids can safely go online solo or text a friend on their cell phone -- or about what our role as parents should be in keeping tabs on our tykes.

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Digital life starts early, in toddlerhood, and accelerates at the speed of light. Kids who chat on Disney's popular ClubPenguin.com have avatars before they have permanent teeth. A love of Leapster morphs into a passion for Nintendo DS and web-enabled Wii. Kids giggle over goofy YouTube videos and stumble across a treasure trove of knowledge -- and everything else imaginable -- on the Internet. Our moms used to overhear our phone conversations with our friends; for our kids, so much communicating goes on silently, via e-mails and IMs and texts, out of our range.

We worry, of course, that creepy adults posing as children will target our kids, and that our kids will inadvertently give out personal info and put themselves at risk. But there are other concerns as well. There's a new level of communication between kids: They may say things to or about each other online that they'd never say in person. Which can lead, of course, to toxic gossip, cyberbullying, and damaged reputations. Also, children may think that the words and images posted online are fleeting, but they can be saved and forwarded and seen by practically anyone, and can linger for years. Words typed in a text message that seem innocuous and impermanent can actually be life-changing. In 2007, for example, a boy in Portage, IN, was arrested for sending angry text messages to his ex-girlfriend, threatening her and another friend. Had these words been said face-to-face, they might have been dismissed. But as digital messages, they set off major alarm bells and the police got involved. The boy wasn't convicted, but the charges will stay on his record until he's 18.

With the digital portion of our kids' social lives happening outside our view, we need to ask blunt questions and keep a close eye on what they're doing. This is where it gets awkward. Many parents become queasy at the idea of digitally "spying" on their kids.

Is it really okay to closely monitor their digital behavior? It depends on how far you go. 

TRUST, BUT VERIFY

"The difference between responsible monitoring and spying is the 'Gotcha' factor," says Nurit Sheinberg, Ed.D., director of research and evaluation at the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL. If your kids don't know you'll be monitoring their use and you find something and go "Gotcha!" they'll be shocked and probably resentful, and may start hiding things from you. So once you decide how much and what kind of monitoring you'll do, let them in on it.

Your honesty has its perks: If they know you're watching, their self-monitoring instinct will likely kick in. (Of course, kids are masters at finding ways around parental control -- more on that later.) One of the best things you can do: Put the computer in a central location. There's no better way to keep an eye on things than to be able to wander by and casually say, "Hey, what website is that?"

Yes, you want to trust your kids. But they're kids -- relying on their word may not be enough to keep them safe.

So ask questions: Who are they communicating with? Which websites did they visit today? Try to keep your conversations positive -- or at least neutral! If your only message is "You're on the computer too much" or "Don't look at that website," it becomes a point of tension, and kids won't come to you when they see things online that upset or confuse them.

Then do regular checks to be sure you get the whole truth: Learn to use your browser's history function (keep reading for help) to see which sites have been visited recently and what's been downloaded. If you want more detailed information, try monitoring software (see below).

All-Seeing Software

Typical monitoring software falls into two categories:

1. Blocking software lets parents create a list of approved websites and block all others. Attempts to visit unapproved sites are recorded, and some programs will message you if that happens. You can also restrict when and for how long the computer can be used. Stephen Haag, Ph.D., a professor in residence of information technology and electronic commerce at the University of Denver, says Net Nanny (about $40) is a good place to start for parents of young kids.

2. Recording software records all data that's sent, received, down -- loaded, and viewed. Also takes periodic snapshots of the screen. Don't have time to view all that data? You can flag keywords (like profanity or sex-related words) and get alerts if they're used. Haag says eBlaster (about $100) is a popular choice. The most advanced programs, such as WebWatcher about $100), offer both blocking and recording, and let you watch your kid's computer activity in real time from a remote computer.

Built-in Protection

PCs and Macs have parental controls built into their operating systems, and each of their newest systems (Windows Vista and Mac's Leopard) offers parents more control than ever, says Ismael Matos of Geek Squad, a technology-support company. If you're considering upgrading your operating system, that switch might save you the cost of additional monitoring software.

To use your computer's controls, first set up individual user accounts for each of your kids. Check your computer's user guide if you're not sure how to do this.

Mac users: Next, choose System Preferences on the Apple menu, and click on Accounts. For each child's account, click on Parental Controls and you'll be given a list of categories (Mail, Safari, etc.) that you can restrict or monitor.

If you're running Leopard, Matos says, you can record IM conversations and designate with whom the child can talk via e-mail or iChat, among other things. You can also limit screen time. For instance, you can set the computer to automatically log your kids out at 8 p.m.

Windows users: The parental controls are accessed through the Control Panel. Look for User Accounts and Family Safety Control Panel. With Windows Vista, you'll be given choices about web restrictions and also have the option of receiving reports on your child's use of the computer. You can designate certain hours off-limits and block objectionable video games and programs.

No matter which system you have, most browsers (Safari, Firefox, etc.) have an automatic history log that shows which sites have been visited. Check your user manual to learn how to check the history, if you're not familiar with it. Make sure to check all the browsers on your computer if you have more than one. And be warned: Kids can learn how to delete the history to cover their tracks, so ask questions if you discover that the history was cleared by someone other than you.

Need more help? Both Apple (Macs) and Microsoft (Windows) have online tutorials and detailed info on their websites -- just Google "parental controls" and "Apple" or "Microsoft" to find them. Mac users can also make an appointment at an Apple store if there's one nearby. Or you can call 800-Geek-Squad for a phone consultation or to schedule a visit (it's pricey, though -- home visits start at $99).

With most issues of safety -- climbing a tree, riding a bike, crossing the street -- we progressively give kids more freedom. But in the digital world, new and different risks come up as they grow. Your instinct might be to back off as they approach the tween years, but that's when to get even more involved. And when they hit you with that tried-and-true "but all my friends are doing it" cry, compare notes with other parents; you'll probably find out that most are just as concerned (plus, you'll see which ones let their kids have unrestricted Internet access!).

Keep in mind that any protection you give your kids will, of course, be incomplete. The world is out there in all its beauty and ugliness, and some of that will come through the modem no matter what. Just don't throw up your hands and give up. Says Cynthia Edwards, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC: "Start the conversation early, and keep the conversation going."

What to allow, and when

Is your child old enough for a cell phone? How about a private e-mail address? How to make the call:

What they want: gaming system
When they'll start asking: By preschool, many kids can nimbly work the controls of a Nintendo DS. And they'll probably want one.
What you should consider: Vet games carefully. Don't assume the "E for everyone" rating means a game is appropriate. Put off networked gaming, which opens up live communication with other gamers, until your child fully understands online safety. How much video-game playing is too much? See how your child's behavior is affected (how long before he's glassy-eyed?), then set time limits accordingly.

What they want: cell phone
When they'll start asking: By fourth grade, your child will probably have classmates who carry cell phones.
What you should consider: Does a 9-year-old really need a cell phone? Probably not. But by age 12, text-messaging may be a huge component of your child's social world. If you decide it's time, research the school policy on having phones on school property. Set specific limits on how much and when she can use it, and have a clear plan for enforcing them.

What they want: e-mail/IM account
When they'll start asking: By third grade or so, kids begin clamoring for their own private accounts.
What you should consider: For making plans, kids can make do with using a family e-mail address. By the time they're 11 or 12, consider creating an account for them, and tell them you'll scan through messages from time to time to make sure they're using it responsibly and that their friends aren't stepping over the line. Remind them that IMs aren't as fleeting as they seem -- they can be saved and forwarded.

What they want: broad access to the Internet
When they'll start asking: Kids in upper grade school need Internet access for homework projects, and eventually they'll want that access to be unfettered.
What you should consider: If your software or parental controls are blocking useful educational sites, consider loosening them. But regularly check your computer's history to see where your kids' surfing has taken them. And reinforce the lessons about online safety, even if they swear they already know the drill.

Cell Phone 101

Decided it's time to equip your child with a cell phone? Some variables to consider:

Parental controls: Many providers let you limit the numbers the phone can call and receive from, as well as restrict texting. Some programs, like AT&T's Smart Limits ($4.99/month per user), restrict web content and limit the amount that can be spent on downloads -- kids can rack up big charges on ringtones, for instance!

Photo/video: Because most standard phones take photos (and often video) and can show those sent by others, this creates all kinds of risks: Someone could shoot a photo of a friend undressing, for example, and send it out to everyone in her phone book or post it online. So it's vital to talk frankly with your child about what not to shoot or send. Also, tell her that you'll look at the phone's file of saved photos and videos every few days and that you're the only one who's allowed to delete them.

Monitoring: If you're unfamiliar with the phone, ask the salesperson to show you how to check for recent calls and texts. These histories can be cleared, so if there's a need, you can cross-reference with the phone bill. Bills usually itemize each text sent and received -- you won't see the body of the text, but you'll know when it was sent and to what number. (This is how one Parenting editor found out her 13-year-old was texting friends past midnight!) If you're concerned, external monitoring services, such as Mymobilewatchdog.com ($9.95/month per child), give parents full access to all messages and alert them if any come from unapproved sources.

Instant language, decoded

Abbreviations and code words speed up instant messaging and texting, but they also mask what people are saying! Brace yourself. Here are some commonly used terms:

ADIH: Another day in hell
A/S/L: Age, sex, location
BTDT: Been there done that
CULTR: See you later
GTFO: Get the f-ck out (expression of surprise)
H8: Hate
ILY or 143 or <3: I love you
JK or J/K: Just kidding
KWIM: Know what I mean?
LLS: Laughing like sh-t
LMIRL: Let's meet in real life
LYLAS (B): Love you like a sister (brother)
NIFOC: Naked in front of computer
PAW or PIR or P911: Parents are watching or Parent in room (drop the subject)
POS: Parent over shoulder (can also mean "piece of sh-t," used as insult)
Pr0n: Intentional misspelling of "porn"
STFU: Shut the f-ck up (expression of surprise rather than reprimand)
TMI: Too much information
TTFN: Ta ta, for now (goodbye)
WTF: What the f-ck?

More on kid technology:

The Parenting.com Guide to Virtual Worlds
9 Best Wii Games for Kids
9 Best Playstation Games for Kids
9 Best Xbox Games for Kids
9 Best PC Games for Kids

Melissa Rayworth, the mom of two small boys, lives in suburban Philadelphia.

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