Internet safety for kids: Mom, the benevolent dictator-snoop, is unrepentant

Beware third grader: Don't fake e-mail to your teacher from your mom. This benevolent dictator-snoop mom – who asks questions and requires access to friend lists – will be on your case for the sake of Internet safety.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
Mom is the ultimate watch dog, as kids learn the good and the bad of the almighty internet. Here, in 2010, Melia Gianulis, 5, and her sister Zoe, 9, play on the computer with mom, Samantha Gianulis, nearby in their San Diego home. Tony Avelar

I share my family name, as well as a penchant for snooping, with “Judy Bolton, Girl Detective.” Fictional Judy was the star of her own mid-20th century mystery book series. Judy lived smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania where, surprisingly enough, there was no shortage of mysteries to solve. In all 38 of her books, her snooping was always for the good and welfare of her family and friends. When I became a mother, I snooped for the good and welfare of my children.

Now that they are older, I don’t snoop in my kids’ lives very much. And I have never snooped because I have an unsavory curiosity about other people’s lives. (Though I will sometimes eavesdrop at the table next to me in a restaurant to figure out if a couple is on a blind date). I snoop for interesting stories. I snoop for inspiration to write those stories. I snoop to unknot the mystery of other lives as well as my own. Snooping comes with the territory of being a writer.

While I had no qualms about rummaging around in my children’s lives, it occasionally got me into trouble. When my daughter was 12, she said that I worried over nothing and that I didn’t trust her. She also said that I was nosy.

It’s true. I do worry over nothing until I have something about which to worry. She’s right that I didn’t trust her when she was the tender age of 12. But I didn’t trust because she was too young to understand how quickly the world can turn scary and dangerous.

I prefer to think of myself as curious. And once upon a time, my curiosity mostly focused on my children’s computer activities or the dialed and received log on their cell phones. When my children were old enough to have screen names, I ran a benevolent dictatorship. This meant that I was not always right, but I was never wrong. Each month they were required to show me any on-line friends’ lists.

The first rule was that my kids had to know everyone personally – in the flesh – anyone with whom they had an online relationship. All the better if I knew them, too, but I hadn’t met all of the sleep-away camp buddies. So, for 12 and up, I trusted, but only just a little. Under 12, I had to know everyone on a list. No exceptions. This rule, in place like cement, was instituted to prevent my kids from coming into contact with someone they had never met. This rule, to use a word that we used early and often since the dawn of preschool, was non-negotiable.

I also reserved the right to walk in at any time that my children were on the computer and ask with whom were they chatting online or what was new on Facebook. Speaking of Facebook, they had to friend me or do without it. If the spirit moved me, I would also ask what they had just typed. Did I mention that I ran a benevolent dictatorship?

All bets were off for a virtual chat room. This was expressly forbidden and would result in the revocation of computer privileges until the age of 25.

Before they were freshmen in high school and old enough to have laptops, my kids had individual accounts on our family computer so they could access the Internet for homework and pre-approved game sites. Each of their accounts had a filter so that a typo would not send them to God knows where in cyberspace. I always knew the passwords to their accounts or to anything else in their lives. If they somehow managed to get on to a commerce site and try to buy something, the dictatorship was no longer benevolent. Luckily, this never happened.

My children never seriously abused their Internet privileges because they knew I meant business. As generous as I am with them, and believe me, I am still generous to the point that it sometimes annoys my husband, they knew that I would not tolerate any infractions with regard to the Internet. Just ask my son about the time he hacked into my account and wrote an e-mail to his teacher to excuse him from an assignment. His third-grade grammar gave him away and the teacher immediately notified me that he was e-mailing her under my name. What followed were not good days for my boy.

But I never fully warmed up to being a dictator – benevolent or otherwise. I took unique pride in saying that my children were spoiled, but not rotten. Yet, when it came to snooping for their wellbeing, I held my ground.

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I think my parents, particularly my father, named me with the hope that I would develop a curiosity that was both intellectual and empathic. Building on my father’s dreams for me, I taught my children to be as curious and responsible as my fictional doppelganger.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Judy Bolton-Fasman blogs at The Judy Chronicles.


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