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Is It Okay to Snoop on Your Kids?

E-Mails/IMs/Web Sites What Experts Say

It's a given that you set limits on screen time, block offensive Web sites, and set up filters to block inappropriate spam. Beyond that, lots of advisers recommend a hands-off approach. "Looking at your child's e-mails or Facebook page creates an environment of distrust and secrecy," says Jay LeBow, PhD, clinical professor of psychology at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. "If your kids can't rely on you to treat them with respect, they won't come to you when they need your help."

Other experts feel that cyber sleuthing is fair game because online activity can be so public. "I think it's fine to say to your child, 'The computer is in my house and what you put up there reflects on our entire family. So I reserve the right to look at your account,'" says Ruth Peters, PhD, author of Laying Down the Law (Rodale). But, she adds, if the postings are consistently benign, back off.

What Parents Do

There's some division here too. "I've always told my daughter that I would read her e-mails occasionally," says the mother of a 13-year-old from Boston. "Kids don't get it that anything they put on the computer could be seen by everyone. I just want to make sure she isn't receiving or sending inappropriate messages or photos."

Other moms warn against hypervigilance. "I have a friend who monitors every single thing her daughter does online," says a mother of two from Cleveland. "One time she even called another parent to complain about a nasty e-mail her daughter got. Now the girl is having a hard time socially."

The Verdict

Listen to your gut. If you suspect your child is viewing banned sites or sending or receiving inappropriate messages, you may want to explore her online activity. Ideally you'll do this with her knowledge, and stop if you have evidence that you were mistaken. Otherwise, ask your child to show you her Web page or glance over her shoulder once or twice a week. Just don't take everything you read literally. For instance, it's normal for teenagers to complain about their parents or exaggerate, says Abrams.