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I Spy: Keeping Tabs On What Kids Are Doing Online

Aftab's Internet Golden Rule: 'Don't do anything online that you wouldn't want done to you--and don't do anything online that you wouldn't want your parents to see.'

About three years ago, Brooklyn, N.Y., mother Nathalie Buchanan overheard her teenage daughter telling a friend about possibly meeting someone she'd been chatting with over the Internet. A panicked Buchanan and her husband decided they needed to investigate whether their daughter was communicating with a stranger before they confronted her about what they overheard. So, they purchased Web-monitoring software to keep tabs on what's going on online with all the kids in the house, including Buchanan's other two teenagers and one younger child.

For a $99 annual fee, Buchanan receives by E-mail a daily report that lists all the sites each kid has visited, as well as dialogue of incoming and outgoing E-mail, chat, and instant messaging. The software alerts Buchanan if certain words, such as "sex," show up in any of the exchanges. "With teenagers, you really have no idea what's going on, and this tells us what's going on," Buchanan says.

Although the monitoring software can be used without the kids' knowledge, Buchanan and her husband were up front about their intentions. "At first they were mad ... but now they tend to forget we're using it, unless something happens," she says. For instance, one E-mail exchange prompted Buchanan to "start a conversation about the birds and the bees" with one of her children, she says.

In other situations, the monitoring software can help parents intervene when their children are being cyberbullied or otherwise harassed. Printouts of the E-mail or IM exchanges can be presented to law enforcement, if necessary.

Privacy lawyer and WiredKids founder Parry Aftab says that, in general, she doesn't promote parents' electronically monitoring kids' Internet activities. For the most part, Aftab prefers that kids become educated about safe Internet behavior and monitor themselves by adopting the Internet Golden Rule. "Don't do anything online that you wouldn't want done to you--and don't do anything online that you wouldn't want your parents to see," she says. However, she says software like that from Spectorsoft Corp. can be effective, especially when parents are suspicious that their children are involved in unsafe or inappropriate activities online.

Parents aren't the only ones using Spectorsoft's monitoring software, a company spokeswoman says. Over the last six months, purchases have been split pretty evenly between consumers and business users who want to monitor the Internet activities of employees.

Photo of teenangels.com visor courtesy of Amy Toensing/Getty Images

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