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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.

Seeing The Danger Signs

Digital technology and the Internet have become wonderful resources for education, entertainment, and communication. Of these three qualities, perhaps nothing has been revolutionized by digital technology quite as much as our ability to communicate. While the movies and TV can still give the Xbox and the Internet a run for their money as far as entertainment is concerned, a huge amount of our day-to-day communication is now carried out via the Internet, the cell phone or other wireless devices.

And thanks to texting, IM and e-mail, most of that communication is faceless and voiceless. For the most part, this isn't a problem. We may lament the passing of the well-written letter or that weekly catch-up phone call with an old friend, but what we lose in intimacy we more than make up in convenience and openness, right?

Well, maybe.... Unfortunately, there are other sides to the convenience of electronic communication.

First, people are so seduced by the sheer ease-of-use and informality of text, IM, e-mail and chat rooms that they regularly include information and opinions that they would never dream of putting in a letter or voicing face-to-face. They can also shield behind a cloak of anonymity; it's becoming evermore simple to set up free anonymous e-mail and IM accounts and then just type away to whoever you choose. Hence the rise of e-mail intimidation and the cyberbully.

Secondly, anyone with rudimentary knowledge of how to pull together a web site or use the many free blogging services that are now available can set up them selves up to spew forth opinions or any subject of their choosing - helpful, unhelpful, or positively harmful. There are web sites that glorify anorexia; that encourage filming and posting teenage gang fights; that openly discuss teenage suicide; that encourage under-age sex....in fact, anything you can imagine is available with a few clicks on a Internet search engine.

So how do you know if your child has been caught up in these issues? Here are some warning signs that teenage kids are having problems. Again, these are not unique to technology but if your child is online a lot, there may be Internet-related issues that need to be addressed.

  • spending too much time alone or locked in their room
  • spending too much time online
  • reluctance to talk about online activities
  • rapid changes in personality - becoming withdrawn or argumentative
  • a sudden change in friends - inappropriate new friends or losing trusted old friends
  • reluctance to go to school or opting out of school activities
  • phone calls from people you don't know or unexplained gifts
  • money problems - trying to borrow from friends or family or friends asking to be paid back
  • signs of tobacco, alcohol or drug use
The best way to confront (and prevent!) these problems: Communication. Communication that's constant, open, and honest. Your children should not only know that they can talk to you about anything but you have to be committed to broaching topics of concern - early and openly. Talk about some of the stories that have appeared in the newspaper or Internet. Discuss weird and worrying web sites that you have seen or heard about. Tell them about your own experiences and fears when you were an adolescent; let them know that they are not alone, nor are their anxieties unique.

If you have trouble getting through to your teenager or the problems persist over a period of time, get help.

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