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Confessions of a cyberstalking mom

One tech fanatic sets her kids free online and then spies on them relentlessly. Is this the right way to parent in the digital age?

By Christina Tynan-Wood

“Just say no!” she said with authority. “And stick to your guns.”

We were at a dinner party at a friend’s house when a parent who takes a hard line on social networking began offering advice. Even though I strongly disagreed with her, I didn’t want to spoil a pleasant evening so I headed to the buffet. I’m not one to shy away from a good argument, but when it comes to kids and technology, my perspective is different than many parents’ — and that’s probably putting it mildly.

I’ll come clean: I’m a tech geek. I’m enamored with technology; not only that but I’ve been making a living writing about it for some pretty geeky publications — PC World, PC Magazine, Popular Science, and many more — since Mark Zuckerberg was in kindergarten. I have two kids, ages 14 and 17, and there’s no doubt that my love affair with technology has influenced my parenting, especially when it comes to letting my kids loose in cyberspace.

My attitude has been, essentially, Bring it on! I give my kids almost complete freedom to use Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, smart phones, GPS location tools, and anything else they want. Much the same way my parents saw the bicycle, despite its potential dangers, as a way to give me freedom to explore the world, I see social media as a way to let my kids find their voices. Most importantly, I don’t leave them out there to fend for themselves. I use these same tools to keep an eye on them — whenever possible. Some people might call this stalking. Others might call it lax. I call it smart parenting in the digital world.

As parents, we can’t expect our newly fledged human beings to sort out such massive technological and social changes on their own. And while the hardline approach — “Just say no” — isn’t as bad as ignoring your kids’ online behavior, both strategies ultimately leave them unsupervised in potentially dangerous territory.

Risky business

Of course, plenty of parents may not agree with my approach, but the reality is that most kids today, especially teens and tweens, are spending much of their time online, parental approval notwithstanding. They may be digital natives, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. Research by the Family Online Safety Institute found that 43 percent of teens admitted they’ve posted something online that they later regretted.

A recent study concluded that “many young people choose to take risks by posting intimate, personal information and/or questionable commentary online, often without parental awareness,” — and do so even though they are aware of potential dangers. Based on this research, the study authors urged that parents “not be afraid to act as a guide to their child.”

Along with following this sage advice, watching my kids as they venture out into this amazing new world gives me a hundred ways my parents never had to help my kids grow. I can see sadness, drama, and new interests unfold with a glance at my phone. I “meet” the friends they never bring home. Sure, it requires keeping up on a bazillion privacy details, teaching ground rules, coaching social skills, and spending time “stalking” them in their networks. But I think that comes with the parent territory these days.

Saying yes — and staying involved

Of course this brave new world makes parents nervous, and I get it. The mom delivering the uncompromising lecture at the dinner party was talking about her 8-year-old who wanted to get on Instagram. A photo sharing social network where the privacy setting is, by default, public is not the place for an 8-year-old. But there are social networks designed for young kids. A more forward-looking response might have been, “You’re too young for Instagram. The social network you’d like is Club Penguin (or Everloop, or Runescape.) Let’s check it out!”

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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