Internet Intervention: Keeping Your Kids Safe on the Web
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Internet Intervention: Keeping Your Kids Safe on the Web

The cohost of MSNBC's Morning Joe learned the hard way that tech-savvy kids plus computers can equal big trouble.

"We need an intervention!" I tweeted. That I sent this SOS via Twitter should tell you a lot about my wired family.

As a journalist and the cohost of MSNBC's Morning Joe, I always have my BlackBerry with me. I use it on air, I jog with it and check e-mails as I run, I even sleep with it (there is always the potential of news breaking overnight). If I'm not on my BlackBerry, I'm working on my laptop, keeping up with the news, updating my Web site (morningmika.com), or sending messages on Twitter. My husband, Jim Hoffer, an investigative reporter, is a crackberry and Internet addict himself. But when it comes to technology, our two daughters, Emilie, 14, and Carlie, 12, put us to shame. They live in an online haze of YouTube clips, multiperson videochats, and the latest computer games. They can wield four remote controls simultaneously, figure out the function of every button on a digital camera without reading the instructions, and walk, chew gum, and text all at the same time.

I sent the SOS that day because I was worried that my girls' total obsession with technology had gotten out of control -- a fear triggered by two upsetting and embarrassing incidents. The first happened early this spring, when I discovered that my younger daughter had a Facebook page. I learned this by checking her computer history -- something I, as a not terribly nosy parent, hadn't been doing anywhere near often enough. Facebook requires users to be at least 13, so she had obviously lied about her age to sign up, then proceeded to post messages and pictures of herself and our family dog. On her page there was access to a sort of message board that, when I scrolled through it, made the blood drain from my face. The conversations taking place -- all between kids in her school -- were like those you'd find on a porn site, with the foulest, most graphic talk about sex you can imagine. My daughter was not participating in these lewd conversations but she was certainly scrolling through them as she communicated with her friends.

I had no idea how long Carlie had been exposed to this filth, or how much she even understood. Jim and I confronted her and she seemed confused and embarrassed. She also didn't understand why it was so wrong that she had lied in order to open a Facebook page. Her explanation was that all the other kids in school were doing it. We had her close her account and I called some of the parents whose children were also participating (who were as shocked as I was).

As a parent I felt helpless and stupid, but most of all scared. How could I not have known that my 12-year-old was on Facebook? What if she had given out personal information? What if someone had used it to try to contact her? I was reeling at the possibilities.

The second incident took place a few weeks later and involved a "TwitPic." That's a photo you take on your phone, download and send out to your followers on Twitter. My cohost, Joe Scarborough, and I often send tweets and TwitPics to followers of our daily show -- usually behind-the-scenes observations and photos of places we visit on location. It's a great news-sharing medium and a fun PR tool. Though I could tweet like a pro, for some reason I hadn't been able to get the TwitPic part down. I could take the picture with my phone and e-mail it to myself, but I just couldn't ever get it to go anywhere else. So I had gotten into the habit of having Carlie do it for me. To save time I told her my Twitter log-on and password.

Bad, bad, bad idea.

Recently my girls hosted a sleepover and they all stayed up late, giggling into the night. That's what little girls do at sleepovers. Now add a computer to the equation. And the fact that Mommy was very groggy from a week of getting up at 3:30 in the morning and a full day on Saturday hosting a women's conference in New York City.

"Can anyone help my daughter meet Justin Bieber?" asked the tweet sent out in my name. This message went not just to the 19,000-plus Twitter followers of Morning Joe but also to most of my colleagues at NBC News. White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie even retweeted the message!

I woke up the next morning to literally scores of e-mails on my BlackBerry from concerned friends. Subject line: Daughter on Twitter! Message: Mika, Do you know your daughter is tweeting in your name?

I was mortified -- imagine what Carlie and her friends could have said! -- but also furious at myself that I had left the kids alone with the Internet all night long. I should have known better. Twelve-year-olds may be technologically advanced but they are still children who have not yet developed the moral guardrails they need to stay safe in cyberspace. I had finally learned my lesson: As a parent the only thing I can do to protect my children is to never leave them alone when they are using the Internet. But I also realized that this is easier said than done.

So I decided to call an expert for help. Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, was kind enough to come to my house and sit down with us. She helped us design a contract for our household that outlined rules we immediately put into effect.

1. No computers in bedrooms or the basement. The only place a computer can be used is in the living room or dining room. Because she is older, Emilie gets a reprieve so she can do homework at her desk in her room, but the computer screen must be visible from the door, which will remain open, and my husband and I can and will walk by unannounced at any time.

2. No going onto the Net without having first asked a parent's permission.

3. No i-chatting during the week unless Emilie and Carlie maintain a B average or higher. If the grades are good they can chat for a maximum of 30 minutes a day during the week.

4. Jim and I can check history at any moment, which we do regularly.

Aftab also suggested that I use the parental controls on my daughters' computers to block inappropriate sites and talked about the various kinds of software that help protect kids online (see "Online Safety Supplies"). My girls understand that if they break the rules I'll install Spector Pro, with which I can see everything they read or type on their computers. But so far they've stuck to the contract, and I have felt a lot more relaxed. Since the intervention, my girls know they need to exercise better judgment when it comes to the big, scary world of the Internet. And so do my husband and I.

Online Safety Supplies

We asked Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, to recommend tools that help you restrict your children's Internet access or monitor their online activity. The first thing you should do, she says, is set the parental controls on your computer. If it runs Windows Vista, you can use these functions (located under User Accounts) to limit computer use to specified times of day and to choose which computer programs or Web sites your child can access. Parental controls on Macs (located under System Preferences) can be set to automatically filter out adult Web sites or to allow access only to Web sites you specify. But other software you can buy can bring you even more peace of mind.

For Safer Browsing

KidZui, free

Instead of using Internet Explorer or Firefox, parents can go to kidzui.com to download this browser and search engine designed especially for kids. It offers access to more than two million games, Web sites, and videos that have been reviewed by parents and teachers.

For Monitoring Computer Activity

Spector Pro, $100

This software automatically records Web sites, e-mail, i-chats, and search terms -- even every keystroke your child types. Its most popular feature is screen snapshot surveillance, which shows you exactly what your kid does online, step by step, with video playback.

For Blocking Web Sites

McAfee Family Protection, $40

In addition to allowing you to block different categories or types of objectionable Web sites (such as adult or gambling), this software can filter content inappropriate for children under 18 on sites like YouTube.

-- Sonia Harmon

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2010.

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