Many parents install some sort of safety filter on their computers, but few take the extra step of installing monitoring software. Monitoring software is different than a safety filter in that it actually tracks keystrokes and takes screenshots (pictures) of Internet activity on the computer.
The software I personally use cost me just under $100 and has no monthly payment associated with it. It has more than paid for itself. It offers me the ability to view my children's IM conversations, emails and some (not all) postings made on the social networking sites. Monitoring software records and e-mails actual transcripts of IM conversations and emails directly to my inbox.
My intent is not to stalk my children's every online movement, but to make sure my kids are using the technology responsibly. In addition to receiving transcripts of IM conversations, my monitoring software emails a daily report to me of exactly which sites have been accessed, what time they were accessed and how much time was spent on each site. If I see sites that I am not familiar with or appear inappropriate, I click through to check them out further.
A word of warning that monitoring software is controversial and many people are of the mindset that it is an invasion of privacy to use it. It always amazes me when doing radio and TV interviews on the topic of monitoring software, how often hosts ask if I feel that I am invading my children's privacy by monitoring their online activity. My answer is always the same: "One in five kids ages 10 to 17 years has been solicited for sex online and one in 33 has been aggressively solicited, including the predator attempting to set up a meeting with the child in person. In addition, law enforcement officers estimate that as many as 50,000 sexual predators are on the Web at any given time." Considering this information, it is irresponsible for parents not to monitor where their kids are going online, with whom they are talking and what they are saying. And you can rest assured that any number of predators is trolling the Web at any given time who are more than happy to communicate with your child, especially if they sense parents are disengaged or absent. A sobering thought, but in many cases, an accurate one.
All three of my teens know that there is monitoring software installed on our home computers. If you choose to use monitoring software, my personal philosophy is that it is appropriate to tell your children that you will be monitoring their online activity from time to time. Of course, there are exceptions to this policy of parental disclosure, such as when a parent has a reason to believe that their child may be involved in dangerous behaviors. An example would be a child that a parent suspects is drinking, doing drugs, or could be at risk for suicide. It is a parent's responsibility to not only intercede to protect this child from harming himself or herself, but to head the problem off at the pass before he/she harms others. It is also a good idea to install the software when your children are young. My oldest son was about 14 years of age when I installed the monitoring software. When I informed him of my intent, he gave me the hardest time. He harassed me about it for several years and told me that he felt like I was spying on his every move. I continued to reassure him that while I trusted him, I did not necessarily trust others who were making contact with him from the outside. I further reminded him that I was only spot-checking from time to time and not stalking his every move. By the time he entered his senior year in high school, I no longer felt the need to even spot check his online activity. He had his own laptop at that point and was preparing to leave for college, so it seemed like the right time to cut him loose.
His younger sister, on the other hand, was 12 years of age when I installed the monitoring software, and she was much more accepting of my explanation. Because I installed it at the front end of her Internet activity, she and her younger brother have known no other way of life. In fact, when she was about 14 years old, I intercepted an IM conversation she was having with her older brother that caused me to laugh out loud. At the time, I was out of town at a book signing and sitting in the lobby of my hotel checking my emails. An IM transcript of her conversation with her brother landed in my inbox. They were discussing a girl that my son had his eye on that just so happened to be a friend of my daughter's. Paige was informing my son Ryan, that she had firsthand information about who this girl liked and said, "I will tell you who she likes but you have to keep it between you and me." Following that statement, she added, "and mom cuz we know she's reading this." She then added, "Hi mom." I literally, laughed out loud.
I believe our children, deep down inside, want us to be engaged in their lives, and to draw boundaries for their protection. I can't promise you that you'll get a shout-out from your child in an IM transcript that lands in your inbox, but I can promise you that you are doing the right thing by getting involved in their wired worlds.