WASHINGTON — Not long ago, a friend sent me an unsettling e-mail. She'd discovered the Internet links for her daughter's and my daughter's online journals. Was I interested in reading my daughter's?
I must admit: I was intrigued. Here was a chance to find out - really find out - what my 16-year-old thought about life, love, friends, school, and all sorts of things. I could head off "problems" before they really took hold - and get a real sense, not just the possibly sanitized version Joanna gives me and her dad, of what she does when she's not home.
After all, I could rationalize it the way my friend did: It's not like reading a private diary, because it's online. The Internet is public, accessible for all to see, right?
I mulled it over for a few days. I thought about quietly reading the journal. But just that thought made me squirm. I tried to imagine my own mother reading my teenage journals, even now.
Meanwhile, I was intrigued by the whole phenomenon of teen-friendly online journals. There are dozens of these sites. One, LiveJournal, offers to let you set up a journal with text, photos, music, a list of your interests, and even an option for "current mood text/icon," whatever that is. You are supposed to be able to control "who can see each individual entry." It's pretty jazzy. Another site, www.my-diary.org, had a sample entry (but no name) posted: "well first i thought school was gunna b cancelled but i guess not didn't do my hwrk so i had to get up early and do that then went to school ... then i went to emily's house with emily and colten and just hung out there it was pretty awesome and well ..." You get the idea. It's teenspeak in its most uncensored form.
I'll admit, I did try one other bit of snooping. I tried to see if I could find Joanna's site on my own, without the actual link - I tried to Google that information in some creative way. I couldn't even come close.
My other choice, then, was really my only option: to tell Joanna that I'd learned that other people were reading her online journal, not just her friends.
"Mom, if you ever read my online journals," she started to sputter. "I would never speak to you again!"
I assured her I hadn't and I wouldn't. "Who told you?" she asked.
"I can't tell you," I said.
I imagine that next she changed her link. I, meanwhile, had freed myself of the temptation: I certainly couldn't read something that was no longer there.
I'm still not sure I did exactly the right thing. I do know that Joanna and I have a good relationship. She tells me about school, her friends, her rowing team (especially what it's like to be rowing on the Potomac, soaking wet, at 5:55 a.m.), and the books she reads.
My goal, now, is to retain that open and strong connection, while keeping an eye out for trouble.
I soon got an e-mail from the friend, wanting to know what I'd decided. I think that when she went to read the journals, she suddenly found herself blocked.
I told her I'd warned Joanna that others might be reading the journal; that I didn't want to violate Joanna's privacy and really didn't like the idea of anyone reading her online journal without permission.
The truth is, I'm just not comfortable with reading Joanna's - or anyone's - online journal without being invited to do so. It would feel uncomfortably like reading an unlocked diary sitting on her bed.
I understand why the friend sees it as a way to prevent bigger problems from coming up - and perhaps I'm taking a bit of a risk by not reading my daughter's online journal.
My hope is that I'll be able to tell if Joanna is having any problems with drugs, alcohol, or boys without it. I never know if I'm making the right decision in these matters, but most of the time, I feel I have to do the thing that my gut tells me is right. And on this, my gut says: "Mind your own business."
• Debra Bruno is assistant editor at Moment, a magazine of Jewish politics, culture, and religion.