Thursday, July 27, 2006

Your Kid and the Internet

Wired has a little article that is nothing special, but it talks about a problem that most of us high-tech parents have had to think about, at least for a second.

Both my teenagers scrounge around in the front of the computer for hours on end, IM-ing and putting stuff on their MySpaces, downloading stuff, playing games. You can't watch them every second, and besides ... who'd want to?

Once, a couple of years ago, I got suspicious about what one of my kids was doing on instant messaging at three and four in the morning, so I installed a program that logged his conversations. I can talk about this now, because he actually caught me. But, listen, I can tell you, those conversations are nearly content-free. When you say, "What are you guys talking about?" and your kid says, "Ah, nothing" -- that just might be a very accurate description.

But you never know. You hear about online predators, and porn and scams and viruses and stuff, and you want to protect them. Here's an advice column in Wired:
I’m worried about what my teenager is doing online. Should I monitor his surfing?

Mr. Know-It-All remembers when all his parents had to worry about was his pen-and-paper diary. It would have been tough to read in any case – it was hidden under a stack of Green Lantern comics and written in secret code. But that was a gentler time.

Now things are more complicated. Odds are you’re worried about the public implications of your kid’s behavior online – such as whether your tween is passing herself off as a sultry 19-year-old on MySpace, or he’s nursing an outta-control Internet poker and porn habit. Or maybe you’re concerned that Google’s cache will cough up their explicit blog to a prospective employer in 2016. “In a teenage brain, impulse control is still under construction,” psychologist David Walsh says. “The job of the parent is to act as the surrogate prefrontal cortex.” Son, Call Me Big Brother

Hmm, that's one way to put it. Or, the job of the parent is to program the prefrontal cortex.
So by all means, yes – monitor their online behavior. It’s your duty. But there are degrees of onitoring, and you should go only as far as you need to. The first step is over-the-shoulder surfing. Put Johnny’s Mac out in the open so you can see what’s onscreen. While you’re at it, you old Luddite, educate yourself. Get MySpace, Flickr, and IM accounts. If your kid has a Web page, read it. The more genuinely informed pow-wows you have with them, the more they’ll grok your values.

In my experience, the best thing is to set the computer up in a "public" room, like the living room or family room, and place it so that 1.the screen faces the door, and 2.anybody can walk up at any time without being seen or heard.

And as for playing on the web yourself, I say, yeah, do that. I have these, I have a MySpace, a Flickr account, AIM, I had a Xanga and a Photobucket account. I've got wikis and blogs and RSS lists and ... well, OK, I'm a geek.

But, see, you get a feel for what happens. Most of it is quite harmless, and even fun, but, like, I remember the first time I tried AOL chat, and a "porn-bot" popped up in the middle of the discussion. The teenager I was talking to was unfazed, it's just background noise to them, but it can be an eye-opener for the uninitiated adult.

Oh, and this advice to read your kid's web site. My daughter has a blog. The last page of it is titled "What my mother doesn't know." Unfortunately, there's nothing on the page; she hasn't updated it in weeks. I'm dying to see what she'll say there.

But of course, it makes sense, if they are announcing their nefarious behaviors to the whole world, you as a parent shouldn't feel like you're snooping if you read it.

(Remember those kids in Rockville a couple of months ago who were setting fire to cars, and then bragging about it on their MySpace?)
But let’s say that despite your best Orwellian efforts, your kid seems seriously troubled, spends every minute online, and won’t or can’t talk about it. If you believe you have no option but to snoop, you can go high tech. Keylogging software such as the spooktastic Spector Pro can track their activity and automatically email you reports. Before you rush off to play Spy vs. Spy, though, here are a few caveats: First, don’t be clandestine. To preserve what trust you still have, you absolutely must tell your kids that you’re watching (and if they know you’re watching, they may begin to self-regulate). What’s more, even if you don’t like what they’re doing, don’t threaten to take away the Net permanently. One recent study showed this threat actually made teenage girls less candid about their online lives.

Yeah, I'd take that with a grain of salt. Anyway, you can't take "the Net" away from them. It's at the library, at school, at their friends' houses, at your house when you're not there ... C'mon, how dumb do you think your kids are, anyway?

And, finally:
By the way, don’t bother with software that blocks illicit sites. Any half-competent teenager can easily subvert it.

I could go on and on about this one. Those stupid "site blocked" windows that pop up -- half the time it's blocking something that is perfectly innocuous, and the other half of the time it lets horrible perverted sick stuff pop up on your monitor uninvited.

Once my kid had a friend over when I wasn't there, and later I clicked on the location window of the browser, just to look at the history of recent sites that had been visited. Oh, my! Next time that kid called the house, I let him have it. I told him I didn't want him using my computer for looking at porn.

This scared the pants off the kid, who didn't know if I would tell his parents, and it also made an impression on my own kid, who didn't know how I had figured out what the kid had been up to. --It's not a bad idea to stay a step ahead of them while you can, or at least make them think you are.

And this last comment, that any half-competent teenager can subvert your blocking software, c'mon, you know it -- your kid knows more about the computer than you do.

In the long run, it will come down to trust, and training. The Internet is full of amazing facts and fun things to do, but a teenager's curiosity might get the best of them, and their judgment is not always, how you say? ... reliable. But really, it's like jumping off roofs, lighting firecrackers, climbing trees, crossing the street, it's just another thing you have to get them through. There's a lot of scary stuff in the media about the Internet, and there are real threats, but if you work with your kid, it seems to me they can get lot out of it, with minimal risk.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eureka! I completely agree with this TTF post!

In the words of Chuck Berry:

C'est la vie say the old folks

It goes to show

you never can tell!

July 27, 2006 4:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home