Why mom enlisted an online sleuth to keep tabs on child

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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to remain anonymous because she's embarrassed by her Internet naiveté, recruited a techno-savvy friend to search for unpublished Web log addresses of her 12-year-old daughter.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.

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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.

Ms. Courtney put two kinds of protection on her family's three computers to monitor her three children. One, SafeEyes, costs $60 from Safebrowse.com, and requires 13-year-old Hayden to plug in a special password, and then limits his Internet access – those he contacts and those who contact him – based on categories Ms. Courtney chose from a long list including ways to limit sexual content, words, language, and gambling.

She also customizes his daily and weekly hours on the computer, occasionally cutting him off when she is away on weekends or has gone to bed.

"Sometimes I hear these bloodcurdling screams from the next room when the computer has cut him off in the middle of a game," says Courtney.

A second software, called eBlaster, documents every keystroke, IM, e-mail, and website visited on the computer her 16- and 18-year-olds use. Courtney can get a log of the day's activities or watch online activity in real time, with a slight delay.

About a year ago, she was watching as a young girl sent Hayden an obscene phrase and link to a sexual website.

"I was watching this all from the next room and holding my breath, and then he didn't click on it," recalls Courtney. She praised him for doing the right thing, but decided to suspend his IM privileges because he could be vulnerable to such suggestions from online acquaintances.

"These put me in control, let me create the boundaries for each and change them at will," says Courtney. Her eldest son ribs her and her husband for "stalking his every move," but on Father's Day he thanked them for the rules that have kept him out of trouble.

Houston computer software developer Larry Estes and his wife Lisa, who also have three kids (ages 11, 13, and 16), have placed monitoring technology on their computers. The family policy is "zero expectation of privacy" says Mr. Estes, and all computers are face out in an open room. "They can't hide what they are doing," he says.

The family has regular dinner discussions over the dangers of the Internet, including posting personal information, engaging in suggestive conversations, or writing commentary that could be screened by future employers.

"We feel education is the best form of control," says Estes. "If we tried to control everything, they would just go out and seek it somewhere else."

Brian Gibbs in Calgary, Alberta, says he blocks his 10-year-old stepson and 18-year-old foster son from accessing websites that are known as "hunting grounds" for predators. His older son has a "lack of impulse control and lack of understanding as to what is and is not appropriate (sexual conversation, etc.)," he says. He found a product called K9 Web Protection to monitor his use.

"I set my foster son up on the computer, and told him to look up every nasty thing he could possibly think of in every manner possible. I left him to it for about an hour. After this time, he came to me in my office to announce his results: zilch. He couldn't get anything. He was much less pleased than I was with this news. I was thrilled. Finally, a filtering application that is truly kid-proof," says Mr. Gibbs.

Many Internet watchers say that parental involvement with kids should go hand in hand with increased Internet monitoring. To help with this, some websites carry new technology and provide "Do's and Don'ts" lists for Internet safety.

"The point for now is that kids are both more savvy and sophisticated in using the Internet but still naive about the ways of the adult world," says Mr. Nickel.

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