I've just done a piece for Radio Humberside which took as its starting point an attempt by an anxious parent to spy on the internet doings of their kids. It did not end well. If you want the thoughts of Rob on the subject, here they are...
I can’t really understand what all the fuss is about with these social networking sites. But then again, I’m almost certainly not supposed to. I write a blog, but that is just because I happen to like writing and my ego is so big that I think other people like to read it. Putting more stuff out there about me seems rather silly, but perhaps that is because I know what I'm like...
At the end of the day the internet is just another communication tool and another way that children (particularly teenagers) can make themselves different from parents. I think every generation does this one way or another. There were huge ructions when postcards were invented because for the first time they provided a quick and cheap way for people to keep in touch (which fathers and chaperones were probably not that keen on). Then it was the telephone, then the mobile phone and now the internet. All the way through the poor parents had to watch their offspring employing new media and devices to communicate. I guess mum and dad just ended up gritting their teeth and trusting that their kids are going to do the right thing, which is probably the best plan.
Using all these wonderful new toys should not be a problem, but just like you’d probably ration someone who wanted to play football all the time and not do any school work, you should do something similar with computer time. And, whilst it is never a good idea to “go under-cover” and spy on your children/young adults (not going to encourage trust across the generations) I think that if you suspect that something is going on which is causing your kids unhappiness then it is important to try and find out more.
Whatever you do, don’t move in just to try and get “down with the kids”, this is pretty much doomed from the start. Good advice, such as not giving out personal details, steering clear of strange web sites and never running programs that you’ve just downloaded are always important though. This should be taught in the same way as we teach road safety. Learning a bit about the computer is also very good plan. Find out how you can make sure that your system is up to date. Discover how to take backups regularly so that important work doesn’t get lost and you can recover from nasty virus infections. If you can make yourself the family “computer guru” that would be a very nice place to be.
Something which is important is that everyone needs to understand that anything that you put out there is visible to everyone, for all time. Even if you take down those snaps you took at a party for a laugh, they may have been copied already, possibly by one of your "friends". And you don’t want to apply for a job and find that your web personality from ten years ago means that you don’t even get an interview.
Remember that employers are frequently using Google to check up on applicants. I would definitely Google someone who wanted to work for me and I would expect anyone thinking of hiring me to see what they could find out about me in the same way. I never put anything on the web that I would be unhappy about anyone reading. Even my emails are censored like this. You just never know where the data might end up one day.
Of course another thing about the internet is that you can create completely false “alter egos” which let you be anyone you like for a while. I’m not sure why you’d want to do that, but we’ve already established that the point of these things is lost on me anyway. I think that in the future we are going to see a need for people to have a slightly more solid internet persona. For example, if you want to bid on eBay for something you find that many people won’t deal with you unless you have some transaction feedback. That requires a tie back to a concrete identity with proper email and payment technology. Maybe in the future it will be harder to hide behind a fake self that you’ve created, which is probably a good thing in the long run.
I suppose at the end it all boils down to trust, you trust your kids to do the right thing, and they trust you in that they feel happy to tell you when things get tough.