Consumer Watch: Should Parents Become Big Brother?

Illustration: Richard Tuschman
When Carolyn Gordon (not her real name), an administrative assistant from Tucson, Arizona, decided to install a program called EBlaster that let her secretly observe her 14-year-old daughter's instant messaging sessions, she didn't expect to learn anything alarming. She was surprised.

"It was a rude awakening," the 42-year-old single mom says. "I found out she was drinking and smoking pot--which I never would have suspected." Gordon, who never told her daughter she had installed the monitoring software, says she was able to intervene early enough to curtail the problem and turn the eighth grader's behavior around. She also informed the parents of two of her daughter's online friends of their children's potential involvement so they could also address the problem before it escalated.

A parent in Illinois reports that Internet monitoring software helped her stop some drinking parties and other illegal and potentially dangerous activities her teenage sons were planning with their friends. Perhaps most disturbing, a Tennessee father who monitored his 13-year-old daughter's online chat activity discovered that the girl was having a sexual relationship with her 37-year-old middle school teacher. Using records of chat sessions, he was able to gather enough evidence to convict the teacher of statutory rape, according to news reports.

Parenting or Paranoia?

It's stories like these, of course, that fuel the sales of parental control software. But as the technology of parental oversight has improved, parents face tougher questions about when responsible supervision turns into paranoia or an invasion of children's privacy. Five years ago, most parental control software was used only to filter the Web, blocking children from pornographic or violent sites. Now, parents can have godlike powers over their children's online lives--viewing everything the kids do as they surf or chat, and immediately stopping any activity that the parents disapprove of.

Naturally, every parent wants their child to be safe, whether the child is online or on the school bus. And certainly if you suspect your child is involved in drugs, inappropriate relationships, or other dangerous situations, it's your responsibility to step in and intervene using whatever tools are necessary. On the other hand, if, like Gordon, you have no particular reason to suspect trouble, should you be reading their digital diaries?

Psychologists and child safety experts I spoke with say yes, under two conditions: First, establish a set of ground rules and standards for going online that both you and your child can agree on, and second, let your kids know you'll be checking in on them. Dr. David Walsh, a psychologist and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, explains: "Parents have a responsibility to monitor the whereabouts of their kids, whether it's in the real world or the cyberworld."

At the same time, Walsh says that it's important to keep a balance between looking over your child's shoulder every second and putting your head in the sand. "Somewhere between the two extremes is the prudent parent," says Walsh. "For example, a parent shouldn't go off the deep end if their 15-year-old son visits a porn site," he explains. "But if he starts spending hours at porn sites and chat rooms, they need to know about it."

What about old-fashioned trust? Many parents--even those who know the perils that exist online--are confident that their kids will make good decisions and feel that monitoring their online activity would send a damaging message that they're not trusted to behave responsibly.

"Given the right situation, any kid can make a poor set of choices," Walsh says. "If we think that our children are immune to temptation, we're kidding ourselves. If there's no accountability, the chance of [a child breaking the rules] increases."

While discussions of online hazards and Internet monitoring often focus on blocking porn sites, the greatest danger may lurk in chat rooms and e-mail in- boxes. Many experts say that concerned parents should focus their attention on their kids' online communications. This is especially true for older kids who spend time instant-messaging and hanging around in chat rooms, where none of the usual social controls are in place and it's easy to hide behind a false identity.

In fact, if your child spends time in chat rooms, there's a good chance that he or she has already been propositioned by a stranger. The Youth Internet Safety Survey, done by the U.S Department of Justice and the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, shows that almost one in five Web users aged 10 through 17 has gotten an unwanted sexual solicitation online.

"Online predators are a real issue," Walsh says. "That's why it's so important for parents to know how their kids are spending their time and who they're communicating with--just like they would in the real world."

There's certainly no lack of software tools to help concerned parents keep an eye on their kids' cybertravels. Actiontec's KidDefender ($40 for the software plus one year of real-time monitoring; is a monitoring tool that runs the gamut in features. At its most invasive, it lets parents watch their kids' online activity from any computer in real time, so that parents can tap into after-school online chat sessions or Web browsing, for example, even if they're still at the office. The program, which must be installed on both the parents' and the child's computer, also allows parents to instantly block Web sites, end chat sessions, or stop other activity remotely.

Another application, Spector Pro ($100), records all keystrokes, e-mail, and instant-message and chat sessions; it also takes "snapshots" of these activities at given intervals and sends a report to the parent.

Whether or not you decide to use full-fledged monitoring software, there are ways you can help your children stay safe online. Consider using filters that can help block inappropriate sites or allow access to only approved sites, especially for younger users. Two good ones are CyberPatrol ($39) and Cybersitter ($40); also, many ISPs, including AOL and MSN, provide their own parental controls. (For older kids, Web filters can be less effective since they can block sites--such as medical information sites--that they might legitimately want to access.)

Keep the family PC in an accessible part of the house where you can easily keep an eye on your children's activity, and limit the amount of time your kids spend online. Discuss some of the dangers of the Internet with older children, and make sure they understand that they should not provide personal information such as their name, address, or school to people they meet online, and they should never agree to meet an online acquaintance face-to-face without your permission.

If your kids get involved in any situation online that makes them uncomfortable, encourage them to stop the communication immediately and tell you. And finally, don't be afraid to check in regularly--whether that means monitoring from the office or pulling up a chair in the family room. After all, if you don't know what your kids are doing online, how can you know if they're safe?

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