Forty years ago, in the moments before the late-night news came on the air, television stations began running a public service announcement: "It's 11 o'clock. Do you know where your children are?"
Perhaps the TV stations should now add a twist: "Do you know what your kids are doing online?"
Many parents think they do already know what their children are up to on the Internet. After all, they've "friended" their kids on Facebook, where kids share everything — right?
Not quite, said Sam Black, marketing manager of Covenant Eyes, a Michigan company that sells Web filters and online trackers to the Christian market.
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Black pointed out that social media networks have blocking features that allow the user to control what others can see about him or her.
In other words, your teenager may be happy to let you see the link to a cute kitten video, but chances are he or she will block you from pictures of last week's party.
The minuses of Google+
One of the newest social networks, Google+, makes it even easier for kids to hide their online lives from their parents.
Contacts in Google+ can be added to a specific "circle," and the user is able to control which circles get which kinds of information.
"In Google+, kids can add their parents to their 'Family' circle, and parents won't have a clue to what their kids are posting in their 'Friends' circle," explained Black, who also edits Pure Minds Online, the Covenant Eyes magazine.
Even if they aren't blocking you or filtering what you see, your kids may instead have set up multiple accounts or user names without telling you.
"To hide, a child or teen may create alternative names, nicknames (or) secret email addresses, and access social media sites from alternative devices such as phones, gaming devices or even a library computer," Black said. "Some kids just do this for fun. They simply make up a profile, use a photo from the Internet and befriend strangers and known friends alike."
"Two teen girls showed me how they created a male profile and talked to strangers from around the world, from Europe to Asia to North and South America," Black, who had two daughters himself, said.
Secret lives of American teenagers
So why are kids less than open with their parents about their social-media activities?
It could be nothing more than exerting some independence from Mom and Dad. Some kids simply want to be able to say things to their friends that they wouldn't say in front of adults. Others want to hide activities like gaming or visiting chat rooms.
But often it is because the teenager has something to hide, said Sedgrid Lewis, founder of Spy Parent, an Atlanta-based service that markets gadgets that allow parents to keep an eye on their children.
On these alternate or blocked accounts, Lewis said, "tweens" (girls age 8-12) and teens will post photos involving nudity, sex, drinking or drug use, engage in cyber bullyinig or reveal other behaviors that would get them into trouble.
And while many parents do want to give their children freedom and respect their privacy, learning about children's online activities isn't the same as reading their diaries.
"Children don't have full development of their frontal lobe until the age of 23. The frontal cortex controls one's ability to understand consequences," explained Mary Jo Rapini, a Houston psychotherapist and adviser to the Illinois-based Web filter company TrueCare.
"They cannot comprehend at 14 that everything they write or text can be pulled up and scanned or looked at," Rapini said. "They also don't understand how immature they are, and so looking for a job in the future may be made more difficult if there are photos or text of them with alcohol, nude or acting in an inappropriate manner."
Dr. Marcella Wilson, a Southern California computer scientist who bills herself as "America's Tech Expert," pointed out that children could be using hidden sites to interact inappropriately with adults.
"These adults encourage the child to keep this knowledge away from their parents," Wilson said. "These adults can persuade kids to meet them in person at a house, another state, etc. So the children can put their lives in danger by interacting with a stranger online."
Because teens, tweens and even younger children tend to be more tech-savvy than their parents, they may feel safe that their other identities and blocked messages will remain safely hidden.
Even if parents use monitoring software or check computer browsing history regularly, kids know how to work around the system. They delete histories, they use password protection to lock their personal computers, they use smartphones or friends' computers to access the Internet.
Uncovering the truth
Can a parent find out whether his child is leading a double life online? There are a few ways to do so, said Wilson.
"Parents can always Google their child's name or nickname to see what comes up in social media accounts," she said. "It may help to Google their friends' names as well, because that might give insight to their child's online actions. Parents can check the history on their computer or install tracking software that monitors each keystroke their child makes."
If you do find a second Facebook page or an unknown gaming account, Black advised not to overreact.
"Everyone makes mistakes, parents included. That's how people grow," Black said. "Good communication is important to teaching your child or teen to use social networking and the Internet safely."
Rapini added that before confronting your child, devise an action plan on how to approach the discussion.
The experts all agreed that any hidden site should be deleted.
"I would remind parents that children are teens for a relatively short period of time," said Rapini. "No other time in your child's life is as exciting with possibilities or as threatening with as many dangers.
"Your job as a parent is to ensure your child's safety while allowing them enough opportunities to learn from their mistakes. As a parent, there are things you can do to help with empowering the possibilities and limiting the possible dangers."
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