Find out what your teen is doing online

Parenting in the 21st century presents a new set of challenges that require new solutions. Like their parents before them, today's parents have to help their kids navigate school, friends, crushes, extracurricular activities and sexuality. But they also face a bewildering new world, driven by technology and media. In this excerpt from “What Every 21st-Century Parent Needs to Know,” Debra W. Haffner addresses what parents can do to help their kids navigate the Internet.

Teens and the Internet: Navigating the new electronic world
Perhaps more than any other area, Internet access has changed our children’s lives (and our lives as well) and challenged us as parents in different ways than other generations of parents. Access to the Internet in our homes has exploded; today almost three-quarters of homes in the United States have a computer with Internet access, compared with fewer than half just seven years ago.

Sexual solicitation
Parents’ biggest concerns about the Internet seem to be about online sexual solicitations. The good news is that only 1 in 7 young people has been solicited online (including other teens), and that is actually fewer than five years ago. Only 11 percent of young people report that they have formed a relationship with someone they met online, and that is down as well. And rather than the image most of us have of the middle-aged predator, reinforced by Dateline specials, most solicitations come from other teenagers or from adults under the age of twenty-five. In fact, when teenagers say they met someone offline, it is often a same-age friend of a friend.

The other concern the media tells us to worry about is online bullying. In 2005, according to the Second Youth Internet Safety Survey, 1 in 11 youth said they had been harassed on the Internet; if we switch that statistic around, 10 in 11 young people have not been. Despite media headlines about Internet bullying, 85 percent of young people have not been harassed. In almost all cases of online harassment, it simply ended on its own or when the person logged off, left the site, or blocked future messages. Most harassment by online acquaintances involves a single interaction, not exactly the image of Internet bullying that the media covers.

Internet harassment, though new to us and thus perhaps more frightening, is far less frequent than harassment of other kinds. Fully 80 percent of high school students say they’ve been subjected to verbal harassment in the preceding year: this includes teasing and rumors and lies being spread about them. Forty percent say that they’ve been pushed, shoved, or tripped in the past year. For teenagers, it‘s probably safer to be online than in school.

Social networking sites
Lately parents’ fears about social networking sites have been garnering a lot of media attention. You have heard of MySpace and Facebook, but there are other, smaller sites such as,, sconex, bebo, tagged, and livejournal. And by the time you read this, I’m sure there will be other sites as well. People (not just teenagers and college students) use these sites to create their own Web pages, where they post photos, music, blogs, and other personal information.

These social networking sites actually have benefits, despite our concerns about them. They teach young people the art of networking and some pretty sophisticated computer skills. (Do you know how to add videos to your Web site?) They can be godsends to shy teens and to those, including gay or bisexual teens, who do not fit in at school. These accounts (which cost nothing) allow young people to share pictures, send mail and instant messages, and write blogs and comments.

The intimacy that can build up on the Internet sites can literally take minutes, not months or years. It can be quite eye-opening to go on MySpace. Anyone can browse — try it. You can ask to see profiles of anyone in a certain age range (but not younger than eighteen) and a certain number of miles from a specific zip code. For example, within 5 miles of my zip code, there were 802 teen women between the ages of eighteen and twenty and 1,031 men. Although many of the pages were innocent enough, some of them were pretty sexually suggestive.

Some teenagers are clearly misusing these sites. Almost 4 in 10 say that they have given out personal information on these sites, such as their last name or information about their parents or their schools. One-third of teens in one study said they’d pretended to be older than they actually are to get into a Web site. A recent New York Times article talked about how some teens are now trying to become famous (or is that infamous?) by posting videos of themselves engaging in outrageous behavior, such as fighting and “fence bashing.” YouTube has opened up new possibilities for attention — and for getting into serious trouble. Teenagers have always pulled stupid pranks; but now, they may receive police attention because their deeds are posted online for the entire world to see.

But are these sites dangerous for your child? The answer for the vast majority of users is probably not.

What affirming parents can do

1. Put the computer in a public place.

This is Rule Number One. The most important way we can supervise our children’s and teens’ Internet use is to put the computer they use in a space where we can see it. Although three-quarters of teens say that the computer with Internet access is in a family area, more than one-quarter say that they have Internet access in their bedroom. In general, this is not a good idea. If you want to be able to monitor your child’s use of the Internet, have the computer in the family room, den, living room, or kitchen.

I highly recommend setting your e-mail account to include a spam filter, but even so, I probably receive several e-mails a day for sexual medications and dating services even at my church e-mail account. Your children and teens are receiving these, too, and they need to know that they should always delete any messages from someone they do not know without opening them.

2. Know the technology yourself, and know what your child is doing.

If you are not at ease on the Internet, it’s time to take a course or have your child teach you. You cannot monitor what you do not understand. If you are at ease on the Internet but unfamiliar with social networking sites, start by asking your tween or teen if they have a Web page. We were at the home of friends last summer when I asked their fifteen-year-old daughter if she had a page on MySpace. She paled and stuttered that she did. It was obvious her parents didn’t know about it, or even know what the site was. I think the girl has been mad at me ever since. My friend was not alone, though; 38 percent of parents have never seen their teenagers’ online profile.

3. If your child tells you that he or she has a Web page, ask to see it — tomorrow.

Give your child time to clean up the site. But also remember that that your child may have multiple pages. As sexuality educator Marc Fernandes told me, “In an hour, your child can create a ‘princess page’ with nothing but bland content. That does not mean she won’t have another page.” In fact, he asserts, “if a child wants to keep something from a parent on MySpace, the parent will never know.” Try asking directly how many online accounts they have or whether there is a second page.

Request that your teenager lock the account, which prohibits people from visiting a page without the owner’s permission. MySpace allows users to designate their profiles as private and allow e-mail only from a named list of friends.

4. Get your own account on MySpace, and ask your child to allow you to become a friend on his or her account.

But ask your child for help in designing your page so that it is not embarrassing to link to you. This can backfire, though. Some parents put up pages and get bombarded by their children’s friends, sending silly messages or “Can I be your friend?” messages. It’s called “friend bombing.”

5. Agree on rules for social networking site use.

MySpace offers its own rules for its younger users, which include:

  • Do not forget that this is a public space. Do not post anything you do not want the world to know.
  • Do not make it easy for a stranger to find you.
  • People are not always who they say they are. Be careful about adding strangers to your “friends” lists.
  • Report harassment, hate speech, and inappropriate content.
  • Do not mislead people into thinking you are older or younger

A number of Web sites suggest limits for safe Internet use, including: Be sure your children agree never to meet someone offline whom they have met online, unless you’re with them. This is probably the most important guideline of all. If your child is over sixteen and does not agree to have you come, at least have him or her agree to meet people in a very public place and to bring some friends along. Make sure they agree to tell you before they do this and to send you a text message that they are all right. But I’d discourage any such meetings until they are at least out of high school. Encourage your children to come to you with any problems they encounter online.Limit the amount of time your children can be on social networking sites, say, to thirty minutes or an hour a day. A good limit might be no Internet until homework is done — although many teens use the Internet for homework, IM’ing the whole time they’re online. No IMs while doing homework might be another rule in your home.

Visit your child’s Web page once a week or so, and leave a friend’s message. Be sure that no identifying details are included: no school names, sports teams’ names, the town they live in, or where they hang out. Look at the photos to see if they inadvertently give clues to personal information. A picture of your teen in front of a school building is not a good idea. Talk to them about their screen names. They should not be too sexualized (nastygrl is one recent example I found of a fourteen-year-old) or give away too much information (steveweston15 could be easy to track).Have them use the protection features on their account; for example, they want to be able to moderate comments from friends before they’re posted. This cuts down on public bullying, but also keeps your child from being linked to sites they don’t want to be linked to. Remind your children not to post photos they wouldn’t want you or their grandmother to see. Embarrassing photos can be copied onto other people’s sites and may have a much longer life on the Internet than young people think. Ask them to consider if they would want a college admissions officer or potential employer to see the picture.

6. Set and maintain consequences when limits are broken.

The natural consequences for violating the agreed-upon limits seem pretty obvious to me: take away access to the computer for a specified amount of time, depending on the severity of the infraction. For example, it is much more serious to find out that your teen has gone to meet someone without your permission than that he or she didn’t not lock the account.

If you find that your children are abusing their IM account, you could make them shut it down for three or four weeks. Check to be sure that it’s been done. Discuss potential consequences with your child or teen in advance for violating your home’s agreement about Internet use.

But recognize that you can only monitor your child’s Internet use at home. Your tween and teen has access to the Internet at school, at the public library, at most community centers these days, and at their friends’ homes. There is almost no way to completely monitor their use. That is where a trusting relationship comes in.

Excerpted from “What Every 21st-Century Parent Needs to Know: Facing Today’s Challenges with Wisdom and Heart” by Debra W. Haffner. Copyright © 2008 Reprinted by permission of Newmarket Press. For more information, click here.