When my daughter Gracie was 15, I did what experts say you should never do: I set up a computer in her bedroom. I was sure that my kid, a book lover who shuns the phone and TV, would go online only, say, to research her AP history paper. How wrong I was. Late one night I heard clicking coming from her room. I nudged open the door and saw her at her desk. "What are you doing?" I asked. "Nothing!" she snapped as she shut off the computer. "Just checking my MySpace page." What, my kid a MySpace cadet? I could hardly wait until morning to snoop around her site after she left for school. Sure enough, there was the choir girl who still slept with her blankie, flashing major decolletage and cooing, "I'm not as innocent as I seem!" Throbbing in the background was the song "Cocaine." I did what any mom would do -- I freaked. "Everyone can see the stuff you put up! College-admissions officers. Cyberstalkers!" I told her when she came home. "I can't believe you looked at my page without asking," she said, as if I'd read her diary. We went at it for an hour -- the most heated argument we'd ever had. Gracie agreed to take down the provocative photo and theme song, but it was a bittersweet victory. She was shedding her little-girl skin and trying on a new, secret self -- and I had been oblivious to it.
Perpetually plugged in to computers and cell phones, our kids are coming of age in a tech bubble, a members-only world where grown-ups aren't welcome and our old-school rules don't apply. And if you're like me, you worry. Isn't all that IMing making them rude and antisocial? Do they know the difference between Wikipedia and a real encyclopedia? The risks of baring their innermost selves online?
Fact is, for all its drawbacks, tech has a powerful upside. "It's teaching kids essential skills for the future, encouraging self-expression and creativity, and providing unprecedented peer support," says Justine Cassell, PhD, director of the Center for Technology and Social Behavior at Northwestern University. See what your kids are really up to in their wired world -- and learn how to cross the digital divide to get closer to them.