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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.

Safety Vs. Privacy

One of the big dilemmas for parents is how much privacy do they afford their children as they get older, particularly as they reach the teenage years when they become more conscious of their bodies and how they look. For some parents this is a struggle - if mom and dad have always just walked into their daughter's bedroom whenever they have needed to, it's going to take some mental and physical effort to stop and knock as she gets older. But for a trusting, caring relationship that will endure through the teenage years, parents have to make that adjustment. Just as grown-ups need their space, so do teenagers...and probably more so.

This increase in privacy should also extend to teenagers' phone calls and other communications... and, yes, even to their online activities! Why? Because kids build trust in their parents, and more importantly in themselves, by being given responsibility. And time spent alone with their friends, their computer, and their thoughts are important steps on the road to a more mature attitude and behavior. A teenager that is always being told they can't be trusted or are too young to be allowed to do something that other kids of their age are doing is in danger of having a diminished sense of worth. And they are far more likely to realize their parents' worst fears by abusing their trust when the opportunity finally comes along!

However, increased privacy and responsibility doesn't mean that the rule book is suddenly thrown out of the window. In the same way that a teenager should have a clear idea of how late they can stay out and where they can and can't go, there should be a clear set of rules when it comes to technology and use of the Internet. As long as the rules are being observed, and there are no behavioral issues, your child should expect to be given the space and privacy they need to find their way in the digital world and develop friendships online and as well as offline.

Assessing the risk

With most tech gadgets like cell phones, video game players or iPods, it's fairly easy to monitor use and adjust rules to suite each individual. But what about the time they spend online? In the password-protected and often highly secretive world of the Internet chat room, how do you know that rules are being followed and that your teenager isn't putting his or herself knowingly or unknowingly at risk?

One easy way is to find out is to see if they have a MySpace or Facebook page and, if yes, ask them to show it to you. These days, any teenager that is spending a lot of time online is almost certainly represented on one of these or another of the main social networking sites. Even if they don't want you listed as a friend (which might not look too cool to their other friends!), then you should be able to sit with them and look at their profile, friends and pictures. Show interest in all their friends, find out who they are, admire the pictures, encourage them to keep the pages current...anything to show that you're interested and that you regard them as an important representative of the family. These days, a teenager's Facebook page can be a mini biography and can tell you more about their interests and the company they keep than you might ever find out elsewhere!

Make a deal

For the more private areas of the Internet, sit down with your teenager and try to make THE DEAL. In THE DEAL, you let them know that you are insisting on installing spyware and tracking software on their home computer but you promise them that you are never going to access it or use it to monitor them....unless they give you a strong reason to! Fans of Joseph Heller will recognize the Catch 22 situation that your teenager now finds himself in. If he says yes, then he better be prepared to follow the rules or risk the consequences. If he says no, then his parents are going to suspect him of breaking the rules already! Ultimately a smart kid will nearly always sign on for the deal. If he does something that he shouldn't be doing, the evidence will all be there for his parents to see - web sites visited, e-mail, IMs, chat room conversations. However, if he stays within the rules, or if he doesn't give them any reason to suspect him, he is free to do whatever he wants and go wherever he pleases!

The only way this will work? By all parties setting off down the two-way street of trust. And your teenager's understanding that you are doing this to protect them should anything bad happen. It's exactly like giving them the keys to the car on a Friday night - one drink and they breach the trust...and it's a long time before they get those keys back again!

So if you are convinced there is a problem that you need to know about, jump in and find out. Safety always trumps privacy. But if you have a happy, well-adjusted teenager and you're not concerned about their online habits, you better be prepared to hold up your end of the bargain! No snooping, no quick looks at their e-mail or IMs. No visiting their preferred web sites.

Oh - and make sure you knock before you go barging into their room!



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