It would only take one click for me to be immersed in my son's online world; he's accidentally left the computer without exiting his instant messaging. Assuming I could interpret the impenetrable textspeak, I could find out exactly what happened at last week's party, establish whether the mysterious Holliiiieeexxxx is friend or girlfriend, and discover who's doing what and where and with whom. I might even pick up some new words and phrases.
But I won't. However strong the temptation, I've made it an absolute rule that I will never, ever spy on my kids online. After all, I wouldn't listen in on their phone conversations. Or would I? Are there ever any circumstances that justify a bit of tactical eavesdropping?
My friend Janey thinks not. "It's the equivalent of reading a diary", she says, though admits that her children would probably not object if she really wanted to intrude on their virtual lives.
The problem is that it's not a diary. Even with the direct messages that pass between one child and another, there may not be total privacy. It's not unknown for accounts to be hacked and I know of instances of children's instant messaging accounts being taken over by invisible strangers and obscene messages being passed around.
More difficult still is the Facebook conundrum. Unless children take care fixing their privacy settings (the rules of which seem to change from week to week), your children's information and photographs could be seen by thousands of strangers and their whereabouts known to every Tom, Dick and Harry.
Mum of two, Melanie, believes that social networking sites need careful policing. "I don't think that this is the same thing as a diary", she says." A diary isn't shared with all their classmates, and sundry other friends and friends of friends, in the way that Facebook is."
The consensus amongst most parents is that much depends on the age of the child, and that little ones shouldn't be allowed out alone in the virtual world.
"From the ages of 12 to 16 I think it is perfectly acceptable to keep an eye on them, quietly", says Melanie. "Not to judge or comment on anything they say or do but to make sure that they're not giving away too much information to the wrong people, to make sure that privacy settings are correct, and to ensure they're not in any situations they find difficult to cope with. From the ages of 17 and upwards though, it is their own private business."
What strikes me most, though, when I talk to my sons and their friends, is how streetwise they actually are when it comes to safe surfing. They seem to know all the dangers and how to avoid them and only the most reckless ignore them.
It turns out that it's the parents who are the most careless with their details, many giving away their location ("Stephanie is at Bluewater") and even inadvertently advertising their kids' names and dates of birth ("Happy 6th birthday to my darling daughter, Hannah").
So before I start lecturing my children and reading their private messages, I'm going to put my own house in order. You never know who might be listening. Did you hear that, Holliiiieeexxxx?
What do you think?
Do you check on your children's online activity?
Do you regard it as 'spying' or careful parenting?
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