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How I Spy On My Kids Online

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I want a "Scared Straight" program for kids who, like my son, think they are immune to the landmines of the online world. I want someone to grab him by his shoulders and scream him into reality, the way those terrifying prison-lifers did to troubled kids in the 1978 award-winning documentary.

The "Scared Straight" film birthed a slew of community programs, supported by frustrated parents, educators and police who had all tried and failed to get through to at-risk kids. The underlying message of "Scared Straight" was clear: Do you want to wind up like this scary prison guy? No? Then stop what you are doing, now.

Yes, I know the programs didn't actually work. There was no science behind them, just a smart film-maker. I don't actually care. I'm weary of being the only one screaming at my son and would like to turn over the job to someone else.

My son, a 6th grader, has a real affinity for screens. He loves online gaming, texting, social media sites. He's not alone. Chelsea Clinton and James P. Steyer -- founder and CEO of Common Sense Media and the author of "Talking Back to Facebook" -- reported that "by the time they're two years old, more than 90 percent of all American children have an online history." They wrote for CNN.com that at age five, "more than 50 percent [of children] regularly interact with a computer or tablet device, and by 7 or 8, many kids regularly play video games. Teenagers text an average of 3,400 times a month."

I've seen middle school kids spend all day gaming, texting, posting photos of their shoes to Instagram and then commenting online how cool they are -- all the while sitting three feet from each other. At some level, it's harmless fun -- just the new toy that this generation plays with. Except for when it's not.

And that's why I'm screaming. My son was playing Clash of Clans-- an iPad/iPhone "epic combat strategy game" app -- with some friends from school when a new online player joined them. She told my son she was 12, just like him, and her name was Veronica. She asked if they could move the chat conversation offline and sent him a phone number he believed was hers.

He knew better. He's been warned about playing games with online strangers. Yet he called the number anyway -- an act that has cost him his iPhone and more importantly, my trust.

In the few days that he and "Veronica" exchanged texts and phone chats, my son learned very little about her. He would ask; she just would never say. He thought it was curious that she "didn't know" what time zone she lived in, because she was 12 after all, and don't all 12-year-olds know that? She also wouldn't say where she lived or went to school, but asked him a lot about his school and where he shopped for clothes and stuff. He wisely came to me when she suggested he use SendVapor.com, an iPhone app that makes your texts disappear before your mother can read them. I can't credit her with turning him on to Snapchat.com, an app that makes your photos disappear; he discovered that gem on his own. Wickr too; Wickr's trademarked tagline is "leave no trace" and what it does is erase things you might not want others to see. "The Internet is forever. Your private communications don't need to be," says its website.

All of these apps, by the way, have legitimate purposes in the hands of adults. I just don't see a whole lot of concern on the part of their marketers to keep them away from kids who use them to conceal their online activities.

"Veronica" did get my son to delete all records of their cell calls and the voice messages she left too; I was able to retrieve those from the deleted folder and hear her voice and capture her number. But the phone number she gave him, well she's either a 44-year-old woman who walks dogs in Oakland or its a number created by an app like SpoofCard.com, which disguises the number that appears on your incoming cell calls. Yeah, that exists too.

We are still assessing how serious an identity breach my son's dalliance with an online stranger may have caused. It may be nothing. Or it may be that we should close all our credit card accounts, change the passwords for every online site we visit, stop all our online commerce. The point is, we just don't know.

As for "Veronica," she is long gone. Since I texted her from my son's phone -- addressing her by what I believe is her real name -- she has left my kid alone and I suspect has moved on to someone else's.

I remain stunned by the incident and feel about as helpless as I ever have as a parent. I work in the online world and know that banning screens from my son's life isn't a realistic option. The goal is to keep him safe and help him develop better judgement and the ability to moderate both his time and the places he visits online. Right now, it's all one big fun house for him.

I recently read a quote from a mom who said she feels like she's losing the war over her kids' online activities; I understood completely. Staying ahead of my son in this battle for his online safety has turned me into someone I never thought I would become: a mother who spies on her child. I don't come naturally to the role, but accept it as the only path available to me at the moment. And I'm fighting apps with apps. Here are some weapons in my aresenal:

* TxtWatcher.com
We are an iPhone family, but I like the idea behind TxtWatcher -- a text monitoring app for Android mobile phones. It now includes a mapping feature that alerts parents not only to their child's texting behaviors -- it flags cyber-bullying and sexting language and alcohol and drug use references -- but now also tells you the location of a child's phone when it sends or receives text messages. You can tell on a map if your kid is "in motion" -- texting while driving.

* MyMobileWatchdog.com
MyMobileWatchdog.com can block a device's functionality. You can turn off apps and website access and even limit the hours that the phone can be used. You have to read through all the messages and activity log. MyMobileWatchdog says it has been the "leading Parental Control Mobile App since 2006." It has location tracking and delivers a mobile activity log to your email every day showing you, among other things, all new contacts your kid has made. I suspect that clever kids like mine would quickly figure out that borrowing a friend's phone or tablet is an easy way to skirt MyMobileWatchdog, but by using it, I can at least get a full picture of everywhere he goes, who he connects with, etc.

* MyMobileSpy
This app allows for broad monitoring, including text messages, calls, GPS location, website visitation history, photos taken. Again, no alerts to anything flagged as inappropriate. MyMobileSpy means you are basically shadowing your child online.

The real downside is that with most of these spying apps, a parent can spend all day following a kid around online. You'll know what he's been up to, but what do you do with that information? How does knowing what a kid's online activity was convince that kid to make smarter choices?

Which gets me back to Scared Straight and the prison lifers.

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