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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

IM & Texting

It's not Greek, though it could be considered a distant relative of Pig Latin. It's text-speak, the typed shorthand that got its start on electronic message boards but has become the lingua franca of online instant messaging and mobile text messaging. AT&T had some fun with this in a recent commercial.

It's a logical solution to the problem of typing words on a numeric keyboard with a minuscule screen, where four strokes might be necessary for one letter and the screen might not be larger than a matchbook.

It also has become a way of communicating under parents' radar, far more efficiently than any whispered tidbit on the phone. Knowing the lingo is an entree to their world - an entree sometimes taken advantage of by predatory adults.

Instant messaging

First made popular on AOL and carried on with Yahoo and MSN, instant messaging is just that: Send a message and, if the recipient has the same program running, it appears instantly. It can be the perfect means of contact - or distraction - for kids working on homework or watching the latest installment of "High School Musical."

But you're monitoring your child's computer use, right? Get familiar with what IM system you have on your computer, and look for its icon in the minimized bar at the bottom of a Windows screen, or a highlighted icon in the dock of a Mac. If you see that the program is active, ask to see what's on that screen. Find out who the friends are behind those screen names. Set rules about who they can communicate with. With portal-based instant messengers, one can receive unsolicited messages; learn how to block them and teach your child not to respond to them (and report them to you).

Dedicated IM devices, like GirlTech's IM Me, allow kids to IM friends within the GirlTech community, lessening the risk of intrusion. (The IM Me's cheerful colors and resemblance to T-Mobile's Sidekick are sure to appeal too.)

What are they saying?

Back to that confusing jumble of letters at the beginning. It actually is a very efficient way of communicating the things that are most important to tweens and tweens. Some of it - the awesomeness of the Jonas Brothers, for example - you probably don't need to know. Other things should raise a red flag. A few text acronyms every parent should know include:
POS = parent over shoulder
KPC = keeping parents clueless
420 = marijuana
ASL = age/sex/location
NAZ = name/address/ZIP

That just scratches the surface; find a comprehensive list here.

Mobile text

Content may not be the biggest issue in mobile texting. Send enough of even the most innocent messages and the result is a whopping bill. Major carriers generally have methods of blocking text messages on an account; other companies, such as Kajeet, have plans that offer a set number of messages for a reasonable fee. Yet another company, eAgency Systems, offers a service, Radar, through which you can set a list of approved phone numbers; messages from unapproved numbers are posted online for parental review.

Another issue is the amount of time texting takes away from other important activities - study and sleep foremost among them. It's very easy to text under a desk or under bedcovers, giving the impression that one is immersed in homework or snoozing away. Get in the habit of checking your cellular bills - note times and area codes to get a rough picture of your child's usage.

Setting rules

Taking time to establish guidelines first can help prevent some of the pitfalls of texting. Before getting the cell phone or loading the message software, discuss with your child:
  • Who they can send messages to
  • When, and for how long, they can send messages; for cell phones, how many
  • How you will monitor their conduct
  • Staying safe
  • Inappropriate conduct - cyberbullying, harassment
  • Penalties for abuse

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