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).
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.