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The Internet: How to Spy On Your Teenager

I'm "friends" with my fourteen-year-old nephew on Facebook. His mother is not. I know who he hangs out with, where he's going and what music he listens to. Out of respect, I don't share what I read online with my sister. Surprisingly, she also doesn't ask. Sometimes I wonder if a mother should be a bit more inquisitive and monitor her son's online activity. Perhaps the key is finding a way to do it that would still allow a teenager some privacy.

Enter SafetyWeb, a website that allows parents to scrutinize their child's online activity. Just type in your kid's email address and the software scans over 45 online social networks, including Facebook and Twitter. It can also monitor cell phone usage, provided you have a family plan.

So what exactly can SafetyWeb tell you? It basically lets you know who your son or daughter is friends with and flags concerning online activity. Specifically, it looks for potential sexual predators (by including the age of your child's acquaintances), inadequate privacy settings and key words that could indicate a problem including depression, an eating disorder, or cyberbullying. The website can also alert you with the time and how often your child is sending text messages. How is this useful? You'll know if your teenager is texting during Geometry class instead of giving the teacher his full attention. (For legal reasons the service can not read the actual text message.)

Another benefit of SafetyWeb is that it monitors online pictures and video. This is especially important because damaging images (such as party pics with beer) could hurt your kid's current and future reputation with a college admissions officer or potential employer, says Denise Terry, chief marketing mom for SafetyWeb. You may not worry about this if you think your teenager knows better than to post incriminating photographs. But what about his friends? With this website, if your son or daughter gets tagged in a photo, you'll see it and can then decide what to do.

SafetyWeb does have its limitations. First, there's the cost. The monitoring service costs a steep $100 a year (or $10 a month). Second, your child could have email addresses that you don't know about and then you won't be able to monitor all of his online activities. Still, this sounds like a pretty useful tool for busy parents who have no idea what their kid is doing on the web.

Now the tricky question: Should parents tell their kids they're watching them. SafetyWeb's Terry says yes. I have a feel some moms and dads would disagree. Ultimately, of course, the decision is yours.

As for my sister, she's not interested in this sort of web service. She said if she had a daughter she would possibly consider it so she could watch for sexual predators. But she trusts her son enough that she doesn't feel she needs to invade his privacy. However, there is one thing she would like. She'd wants him to carry a GPS tracking device (perhaps through his cell phone) so that she would know if her teenager is really where he says he's going.

How do you monitor your child's online use?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
iText image courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.
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