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How to Spy on Your Child Online

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.

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