The mother of a 15-year-old boy calls Joshua Finer to buy software the computer whiz has designed to allow parents to monitor children's computer activity.
She has a "small" problem.
Her son has installed a password on the computer itself, so she can't turn it on to install the software. She is stunned to realize she is shut out of his life.
This, says the 24-year-old president of his own company, Software4Parents, is a story for our time: a tech-savvy teen and a well-intentioned but technology-challenged boomer-generation parent just waking up to the "locked doors" her child has left behind him on his journey into the 21st century world of technology.
"Other big inventions through history have brought up the same sorts of [parenting] problems," says Finer. "The child knew enough to designate the computer as his whole locked territory. You have to figure, if the child is doing something like that in this area, what are they not sharing in other parts of their life?"
Passwords are not necessary to gain access to the Internet. But, according to the US Internet Industry Association (USIIA), all approximately 7,000 Internet service providers require a password for e-mail or instant message services.
According to Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, passwords can be a critical topic that opens up much larger discussions within families.
"The communications part of the Internet is more important [when it comes to children], because this is where the important identity stuff and basic social engagement with the world is taking place." In other words, says Mr. Rainie, exactly the area where children most need adult guidance and participation.
A discussion about passwords between parents and children can open more than computer portals. "This is one of several things that serious parents need to know about and be prepared to discuss with their kids," says Rainie. "It may not be the end of it, but it shows that parents care enough and are vigilant and that it matters enough."
Passwords are necessary to protect privacy and create security for online shopping and communication. But in a world where many parents are like immigrants struggling with a new tongue their children already know, the unintended consequences of a password's power are only now being explored.
"The nature of the Internet is that it separates children from their families," says Kathryn Montgomery of the Center for Media Education. "Parents are shut out by either a password or a disconnect between the sophistication of the kids and the lack thereof by the parents."
The Internet is a brand new culture, without agreed-upon rules of engagement, says Ms. Montgomery, who was instrumental in the passage of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. "The next generation is entering into a world in many ways they'll be very tech savvy in, but in other ways they are not necessarily mature enough to navigate that world."
Parental education, say both Rainie and Montgomery, is key to unlocking the power of the password. And since powerful marketing forces are driving the development of the Internet, the responsibility, they suggest, lies with the companies who are putting families online. "They are the companies that are delivering this media environment to families. They have some responsibility to navigate these new waters and anticipate the problems," says Montgomery.
"They've got to raise the issues that nobody wants to hear about." However, she points out, this flies in the face of unfettered access to the highly desirable target markets children represent for companies. (A July report by Datamonitor shows that 65 million 5- to 17-year-olds are online.) "Anything that puts a layer between them and their target market, they will resist."
Unquestionably, AOL is one of the biggest, with some 30 million users.
Although AOL will not divulge how many are under 18, the company is by far the largest single provider of e-mail for children. While AOL offers a variety of parental controls, it will not reveal a child's password to his or her parents, nor does it make available online monitoring of children's e-mail or instant messages. Passwords can be reset by the parent, but can, in turn, be re-reset by the child.
"AOL isn't meant to come between a parent and a child," says AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham, when asked whether a parent could obtain a child's password.
While some suggest that a child has a right to privacy, comparing e-mail to a locked diary, there is an important difference. "Diaries aren't interactive with the rest of the world," says Ruben Rodriguez of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
While he does not advocate a climate of suspicion and mistrust between parents and children, he suggests that the technology of the Internet offers unprecedented opportunities to predators.
"There are no identifying markers. People can be who they want on the Internet. At least with the phone, there is a voice that would give an adult away to a child."
Teens' desire for privacy from parents can make them vulnerable in other new ways. Mr. Rodriguez relates the odyssey of a 14-year-old boy who established a relationship with a person he thought was another teen, but was actually an adult pedophile.
The older man e-mailed the boy, sending pornographic photos, which the boy was worried about hiding from his parents. The man sent the boy encryption software to use on his e-mails, ostensibly to keep his parents out. The ultimate goal of the encrypted communication was to extract the personal information the pedophile needed to make final contact with the boy. The relationship was discovered when his mother found the photos on the printer.
"Perpetrators are using safety to safeguard their communications," says Rodriguez. Parents, he says, must fight back by establishing trust and open communication. "Start with the passwords, but it has to go much further than that," he says. Children may divulge the password, but if there is no trust, the passwords won't help.
"Kids can have several e-mail accounts and access them from friends' homes or school or the library," says Rodriguez. Parents have to be willing to take responsibility for their children.
"I say, if you're going to buy a car, do you just hand them the keys and say, here? You teach them the rules of the road. The same thing applies to the Internet. And if they get in an accident, you help them through it."
Trust and a willingness to learn the new technology are both critical for parents. It may seem difficult, says Rodriguez, but that's the only solution.
According to the FBI, 800,000 children go missing every year. Some return, some don't. Some, says Rodriguez, get lured by false promises they hear from new predators. "Does the Internet have something to offer? If a child isn't finding something at home, they find understanding and soul mates out there."
If your child is active on the Internet, log on with him or her and take a look at some helpful websites:
Center for Media Education www.cme.org
Pew Internet & American Life Project www.pewinternet.org
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children www.ncmec.org
Net Family News www.netfamilynews.org
Parental software www.software4Parents.com
Parental software www.worldvillage.com/family/ parental.html
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The Burke family household may not be typical, but it has crossed the generation divide and survived - with new rules in place. Jennifer, mother of two daughters who are 13 and 8, is a staff associate at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, where she specializes in technology issues. While her household, with a central network that links eight computers, may not be like most, she says, the situations are.
The issue of passwords was resolved after her eldest began receiving obscene, threatening e-mails from a boy in the neighborhood. "I called his father, we had a lovely chat and he lost his computer."
In other words, says Mrs. Burke, strong action was taken. Ever since then, the rules have been clear. "Our deal with her is that we have to have her password, and if she changes it, the power will disappear from her computer." Burke says she doesn't snoop through her daughter's e-mails. "But I check every so often, maybe once a month I'll do random checks. She understood, especially after the incident with that boy, that it's helpful for mom to know what's going on."