Protecting Your Kids Online: How Strictly Do You Want to Monitor Your Kids' Social Network Behavior?

12/14/2011 07:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 13, 2012

Many parents still don't understand the risks their kids are exposed to on social networks, or they think that the potential dangers only involve "other kids" or "not our type of schools." Wrong. Every type of school, child and neighborhood has already experienced the dark side of social networking.

The question is, what's the best monitoring solution for your household?

And the answer depends on what type of child you have, what type of parenting style you've adopted -- and, mostly, how much risk you're willing to accept and embrace.

We've already talked about kids and parents in previous posts.

Now let's assess the monitoring tools and solutions that are designed and available to help protect kids when they're on social networks like Facebook.

The goal here is to help you select the best software and devices -- the ones that fit your child's behavior, your parenting style and your risk appetite.

At the strictest extreme, there are devices and software that covertly monitor what your child does.

You can install spyware on a computer that secretly tracks everything that happens on that computer, and there is even spyware that can be installed secretly on most mobile phones and which will keep track of text messages, app usage and other activities on the phone.

Surveillance equipment -- such as hidden micro cameras, GPS monitors and recorders -- are all readily available to anyone who wants to buy them. Indeed, the average person today can purchase surveillance equipment that would have been used only by the police and FBI a decade ago. This equipment offers covert and undetectable methods for spying on people without their knowledge. But this is extreme, and, even though it may be justified in some instances, most parents and family counselors would probably agree that these types of solutions are only for extremely high-risk situations.

At the other end of the horizon, there's open software and devices that parents can discuss with their kids, and which the kids know about.

Kids might object to this, but parents don't necessarily have to give them a choice -- even though there's full disclosure.

Examples here are computer and video game timers, filtering software that blocks certain web sites and content with a warning message, parental control software that limits when -- and for how long -- devices and applications can be used, and GPS tracking devices that the kid knows about.

If used properly, these devices not only protect, but can also help teach kids the right habits. And the goal should be to eventually remove the software or device once the kid has gotten older, or earned the required level of trust.

There isn't much "in between" here, since this is largely a case of whether your kid knows what you're doing or not.

Still, there are degrees of monitoring.

There is monitoring that may be hidden, but that only reports to parents when something potentially risky is detected. This doesn't really violate a kid's privacy since it's not constantly spying.

A parent can also install hidden monitoring, but only take a brief look at it once a week or once a month -- rather than every night -- as a check up to make sure everything is okay.