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Why mom enlisted an online sleuth to keep tabs on child

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 2006



LOS ANGELES

Author Vicki Courtney in Texas keeps close tabs on her 13-year-old son, Hayden, by monitoring his instant messages (IMs) from a computer in the next room. Sometimes Hayden knows. Sometimes he doesn't.

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Carolina Aitken, a mom in Santa Rosa, Calif., took her two teenage sons on the Dr. Phil show after she exposed their Internet misuse. She had contacted them via e-mail as "Candy Sweetness," a fictitious 16-year-old girl, to see if she could get them to give up their home phone number. One did.

A mother in State College, Pa., who asked to remain anonymous because she's embarrassed by her Internet naiveté, recruited a techno-savvy friend to search for unpublished Web log addresses of her 12-year-old daughter. The friend found the girl posing as an 18-year-old on MySpace.com, a social-networking site for teens.

Amid hand-wringing over the increasing sophistication of online sexual predators, financial scammers, and other cyber-solicitors, more moms and dads are resolving to become their children's "Big Brothers" – in both the collegial and the Orwellian sense, but too few parents are doing as much as they should, Internet experts say.

"A larger percentage of parents are getting involved in ways to advise, watch over and even control what their kids are doing," says Ken Colburn, founder and president of Data Doctors Computer Services, a nationwide computer service, which also publishes warning signs to identify net-addicted teens, safety tips, parental advice, and family contracts for Internet use. "But that involvement is still not anywhere close to where it needs to be."

Officials say 750,000 sexual predators have been identified on the Web. One in five children between grades 7 and 11 has been contacted on the Web by someone asking to meet, according to Rob Nickel, author of "Staying Safe in a Wired World: A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety."

"Internet predators haven't changed over the years, but what has changed are the ways they can contact and infiltrate through cellphones, IMs, blogs, social websites and a number of other Internet tools," says Mr. Colburn.

Generally, parents are not as involved partly because of the rise of two-income families (i.e. two absent parents) as well as the increased number of computers and child-owned cellphones per household, and the technological generation gap that has kept cyber-sophisticated children light-years ahead of their techno-befuddled guardians.

But now, more are beginning to recognize the dangers of such neglect. Using an array of new monitoring, blocking, and filtering technology, they are more determined to protect their kids from the consequences they have seen in the media.

Just last week, the FBI released a story of a 16-year-old girl in Michigan who flew to the Middle East to meet a man in the West Bank that she came to know on MySpace.com.

"Parents are waking up because there are more and more stories where a family friend or inner circle member has been affected," says Colburn. "Parents are realizing, hey, if that can happen to them, maybe it can happen to us, too."

To keep up with technology's onslaught of new lures, moms and dads are trying everything from a fresh dose of familial heart-to-hearts (including written contracts of computer rules) to stealth software that can pinpoint every keystroke, e-mail, pop-up ad, and website visited on their children's laptops.

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