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Online monitoring: Do you know your child's passwords?

Monitoring your teens on FacebookTeens and tweens of every stripe are logging onto Buzz, Skype, email and Facebook. Should parents know their children’s passwords and monitor their communication? The debate sparks passion on both sides. Some parents believe their children have a right to privacy, as with the locked diaries and hushed phone calls of the past. Others believe that, at least for the first few years, children’s activities should be monitored, because they could be made public, and therefore  be  harmful or dangerous.

Many parents do have their children’s passwords. “It’s like Jiminy Cricket sitting on their shoulder,” said Granya O’Neill, a Seattle middle school teacher and mother of five ranging in age from 10 to 24. “Kids are less likely to behave badly online if they know a parent may see it.” Dr. Laura Kastner, a family therapist, agrees it is better to start kids off with the expectation that their parents will periodically check in on them.

Predictably, when asked whether or not parents should have their children’s passwords, a group of eighth-graders all said parents should not have that access. “They should trust us until we do something to lose that trust,” said one student. Others suggested that parents should  “friend” their child on Facebook, rather than have a password to the account, or agree to be privy to passwords only until their kids reach a certain age. However, the students did admit that parental monitoring kept them more in line when they were online.

Some say ‘no’
Some parents choose not to know their kids’ passwords. Susan D. of Bellevue says she wants to trust her daughters to do the right thing and doesn’t want to get involved in their day-to-day social lives. At the same time, she sees it as her responsibility to guide them as they wade into the new technology. “We’ll sit and look at my daughter’s Facebook page together and talk about what’s going on,” she said. “If my girls seem secretive about something happening on text, I’ll ask to see their phone.”

However they choose to do it, parents monitor their teens’ activities online to help them learn to use technology safely and steer them away from trouble. Sending an email or text can seem like a private message, but teens need to know that privacy is far from guaranteed; any photo, comment or joke sent to one friend can quickly be forwarded around the entire school — either intentionally or by mistake.

Most teens already know that it’s unsafe to share personal information online or to arrange to meet someone in person whom they’ve met online. On the other hand, many learn the hard way that friends can play pranks on one another by taking someone else’s phone and sending messages from it in their name.

When parents see inappropriate online behavior, experts say that’s a good time for a serious conversation. Susan’s daughter promised not to forward chain emails, such as those that promise you will never find the love of your life unless you forward the message to 10 other people. A few days later, she discovered her daughter had sent some of them. “I was tempted to ban all the electronic communication devices in the house,” Susan says, but realized that this was the environment in which her girls were growing up, and they needed to learn how to navigate that environment.

Should you know your kid's passwords?Addressing problems
Kastner says that when a child is caught doing something inappropriate, he will feel shame, so parents should refrain from reacting with a “I can’t believe you did that!” Instead, discuss how the situation arose and what could have been done differently. At the end of the conversation, a logical consequence, such as increased monitoring, can be doled out. However, the main focus should be on talking about what happened, so that teens can make better decisions in the future.

Sometimes an online discovery warrants a conversation with another parent, uncomfortable as that may be. Lisa M. of Seattle saw some exceedingly “grown-up” photos a 12-year-old had snapped with a cell phone at a birthday sleepover. Lisa called the girl’s mother and asked her to delete the photos before they made their way onto the Internet. “She was embarrassed, but appreciated knowing,” says Lisa.

O’Neill also liked having her children’s online passwords when they were young teens because if she had concerns, it allowed her access to their information. Indeed, such access can reveal bullying, drug use or other serious activities that your child isn’t likely to bring up. Teens can also use parental monitoring as a handy excuse for not posting a sexy photo or sending a mean text, if there is peer pressure to do so.

As middle-school students move on to high school, Kastner suggests parents reduce their monitoring based on the individual child’s temperament, track record of risk taking and self-control. “It’s like teaching them to drive,” she says. “You drive alongside them for a while and explain how it all works, but your goal is for them to go out safely on their own.”

Julie Weed is a local author and free­lance writer for The New York Times and other publications. Her website is juliebick.com.

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