You're trying to be casual, but your teen isn't buying it. You've just asked her about a picture she posted on Facebook. (Where in the world did she get that bikini top?! You know you never bought anything that skimpy for her.) And now she's firing up the tornado siren: "Buuuuuut Mo-om! You're not supposed to be on Facebook. You're old! You just want to spy on me and ruin my life. You don't trust me!"
You want to actively guide your teen's Internet use, but how can you do so in a way that doesn't seem distrustful or interfering? In a word, it's all about communication.
Rather than going to your teen's favorite social networking site, finding something disagreeable and then telling him you were looking at his profile, talk about it first. Let him know that a condition of his being allowed to use Facebook or the next big thing to come along is that you have access to his page. The purpose of this conversation is not to negotiate, but to underscore the value you place on being upfront and honest.
Though social networking sites allow you to send messages to other users, that doesn't mean you have to use that feature. Keeping an eye on what your teen is posting is great. But unless the two of you have a very unique relationship, making comments his friends can see is probably a no-no. Public embarrassment doesn't do much for family communication.
Teens create Web profiles to express themselves. They want to understand their own identities, and they want to tell others who they are. That's a normal part of growing up. But in cyberspace, it can be dangerous. So tour your teen's personal page with her and point out where she's posted details (often unthinkingly) that might pinpoint her specific identity and location to someone with less-than-noble intentions.
One wise aunt I know did this with her 15-year-old niece. The girl didn't think she had posted anything dangerous on her social network. Then her aunt showed her how a picture of herself in her dance team t-shirt could enable someone to narrow her identity not only to a particular city and school, but to a group of a dozen students within the school. The girl was appropriately freaked out and removed the photo from her profile.
Thinking through safety issues with your teen may help her to appreciate — or at least tolerate — your online presence. Even better, it'll make her more likely to be careful with what she posts on her page.
Even if you do a fabulous job of communicating with your teen, he may still be mortified that you read his online profile. Do it anyway. The protection you offer is so important to his well-being that it's worth getting a rap as an intrusive parent. Maybe years down the road — long after Facebook is obsolete — your teen will thank you.