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Mom finds her teen’s secret life on MySpace

A mother wonders if she should confront her daughter about skipping school and partying. Dr. Ruth Peters tells her that it’s time for straight talk.

Q: My 15-year-old daughter has a MySpace website (I overheard her talking about it on the phone with a girlfriend), and I was able to check it out last week. I was astonished with what I found — a group picture with a bunch of her best friends, apparently at a party, most with a can of beer in their hand. She wasn’t holding a beer, but she was surrounded by kids who were. I also read some (but not all) of the notes on the site from her friends, and many were OK, but some were suggestive of other parties and some skipping of school. This is all news to me, and I don’t know how to approach her. I’m furious, but I'm also concerned and want to let her know that this behavior is not fine with me. But will she think that I was snooping? How is the best way to handle this?

A: I can truly understand your concerns — it’s shocking to find out that your child is partying, possibly skipping school, and drinking all in one reading of a website! Let’s look at the various issues involved with this dilemma. MySpace has its pros and cons. Kids love to add their pictures, views on life and showoff the number of friends that they have on the site. To many it’s an online journal of sorts — a pictorial story of what they think is important to do, who they like to hang out with, and what activities are they consider near and dear to them. However, it’s also a place for bravado and exaggeration. Many, many teens that I work with share their spaces with me, so I’ve learned to take some of what is said or seen on the site with a grain of salt. There’s lots of bragging about guys they’ve met who may be completely fictitious, parties they’ve attended (but not really), and interests that they may not be that interested in.

So before you believe what you read and see on her site, it’s best to check it out. Call the school to check absences. If there are any, make a note of the dates. Do these match up with days she took off for appointments or because of illness? If not, then it’s time to talk with your child directly.

Inform your daughter that you have looked at her MySpace site. You can tell her that you heard her mention it to a friend while on the phone and that you decided to check it out. Let her know that you did not read all of her friends’ notes, but that some of what you did view was of concern. Talk about the picture that was obviously taken at a party as well as the notes about skipping school. If you discovered that she didn’t have legitimate reasons for missing some classes or days, let her know. Then, listen to her explanations.

If she admits to skipping school, find out whom she was with and where they went. You may need to contact the other kids’ parents to notify them of what has occurred. Let your daughter know that you will not tolerate any form of hooky and that you will be checking with the school on a daily or weekly basis for a while to make sure that she is in school and attending every class. Many high schools have websites that give parents access to daily attendance records. If she has skipped school, you may wish to consider grounding your daughter, forbidding her from seeing her from friends for a while (especially those with whom she left the school grounds), and restricting her cell phone and Internet use for a period of time.

Next you have to investigate the party scene. Since you’re just a few mouse clicks away from “proof” that she was at the party, she’ll probably come clean about being there, but she may not admit to drinking. Perhaps she wasn’t. But since her friends were holding cans of beer, she probably was drinking too. The bottom line is that she is underage and not allowed to drink alcohol, and you don’t want her hanging around kids who do. In addition, she attended a party without your permission and this has caused a rift in your trust in her. Explain how disappointed you are — not in her as a person, but in her lapse of good judgment. Although partying in high school is not unheard of, you probably don’t appreciate her attending a party without your knowledge or permission. Have a frank discussion with her about the risks that go along with attending parties where alcohol is involved. And tell her that you are upset that you have to restrict her freedom, but that you will have to double check on her whereabouts for the next several months (following her completion of the grounding). Follow through with these consequences, even though it would be easier to just give her a warning and let it slide.

You need to decide whether to alert her friends’ parents to the party scene, which will most likely upset and mortify your daughter. I suggest asking yourself how you would like to be treated if the shoe were on the other foot and her friend’s mother found out about your daughter’s attendance at a party before you did. Would you like to be informed? If so, then consider phoning the parents and briefly alerting them to the possibility of such activity.

If your daughter seems indignant that you’ve viewed her MySpace site without her permission, explain to her that she shouldn’t even have developed one without your knowledge and permission. Don’t take the bait and start to blame yourself — she’s the one who has misbehaved and must be held accountable for her actions.

Now for some thoughts on a related topic: safety issues concerning Internet sites such as MySpace or other journal/blog areas. Most likely your daughter has unwittingly released personal information on her site that is inappropriate for strangers to know. She may have given out her address, phone number, or other data that would make it easy for a child predator to use to identify her. Even though she may have done so in naiveté, it is imperative that you impress upon her how dangerous such a site can be. There are some enhanced security measures that kids can use when employing such a site, but hackers can easily bypass these defenses and establish teens’ true identities.

Before you continue to let her keep her MySpace account, review the site with her in detail, set up as many security measures as possible, and let her know that you’ll be reviewing it periodically for safety reasons. If you feel uncomfortable with the entire idea, have her delete the site and set up appropriate parental guardian measures on your computer that would not allow her to reestablish another account. Talk with your daughter and try to let her know how dangerous various Internet activities can be. Suggest other ways to communicate with friends that are more secure and safe.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2006 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.