What should you do if your child maintains a secret life online?

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By Wendy Sachs

(CNN) — My sixth grader has a secret life online.

It wasn’t so secret about a week ago when I discovered his public profile on Instagram, where he was posting dramatic photos and soulful “Versagrams” (graphical text messages), for all the world to see. One moment he was in love, the next full of despair. I was stunned.

My 11-year-old son has never let on that he is remotely interested in girls. Not a word. And he’s not exactly the middle school kid with swagger. He’s a relatively shy guy. Yet, his Instagram avatar was boldly flirting with a girl, prolifically posting inside jokes about his crush and inviting commentary not only from his school friends, but also from a far-flung social network of kids from Connecticut to New Jersey who I am certain he’s never met in person.

His phone was beeping nonstop for three days, with a stream of frenzied text messages and Instagram posts. Something big was going on. My son wanted to ask a girl out. Did she like him, too? He wasn’t sure, but from what I saw online, this was hardly confidential information. His plan for asking her out was getting circulated in cyberspace and he had several kids weighing in on both the strategy and his likelihood for success. He was fully exposed on multiple virtual platforms, and that was terrifying to me. He clearly didn’t understand the full impact of online activity. What should I do?

When my son was sleeping, I was checking the text messages and followed the Instagram updates — after all, this wasn’t really sneaking if my son maintained a public profile. But what could I say? Should I tell him that I am monitoring his moves? Was my looking at text messages the same as reading a diary? Was I violating my son’s privacy and simply making too much of this? My husband told me to back off, that our son was merely a kid with a crush who needed to experience this rite of passage on his own, without a hovering mother. But I wasn’t so sure.

Like many parents, I am struggling with the boundaries of monitoring my kids’ online activities. Is it an invasion of our children’s privacy to intercept or check their text messages, or have the rules changed for parents because of the pure power and danger of technology? Am I justified in cyberstalking my own son? A first crush is hard enough, but I am trying to protect him from the embarrassment that can come from exposing this personal experience online.

Adults know that a careless e-mail, text message, tweet or photo posting can cost someone not only their reputation, but also their career. The scandal over former CIA Director David Petraeus’ extramarital affair apparently started with an e-mail breach. If the CIA director can get sloppy with personal e-mails, how can we trust a kid to handle these tools any better?

Experts say that it’s important for parents to proactively monitor their kids’ online behavior. “It’s snooping only if we don’t tell them we’re doing it,” said Scott Steinberg the author of the best-selling “Modern Parent’s Guide” series. “You need to have the discussion up front about why you are there and why you are monitoring their online activity. Passively knowing that a parent is present can alter kids’ behavior online. Parents won’t intrude on their kids’ experience if they do it in a way that’s upfront and straightforward.”

Parenting in a post-Facebook era where a new, must-have, social media app is churned out every two minutes makes monitoring exhausting, if not impossible. But while I believe my son knows not to communicate with “strangers,” the way he’s exposing his life in cyberspace is making me tense. But he’s hardly alone. The photos and messages that his fellow tween friends post on Instagram alternate between silly and provocative. Maybe it’s the digital photo-filters, but the girls seem sexy beyond their years. While it’s our duty as parents to teach our kids responsibility with technology, how much can we interfere with their freedom of expression?

Steinberg says it’s important that parents are educated about what’s out there and are on top of their kids’ online behavior without getting totally crazy. He says that parents can’t just hand their kids digital devices and expect that they understand netiquette. But at the same time, parents need to respect boundaries.

“Just because you can see what’s online doesn’t mean that you should obsess over it and micromanage every text message,” Steinberg said. “There are boundaries for parents as well. And at the end of the day, you don’t want to become paranoid. You really just want to open an honest dialogue and positive computing. You can’t put your kid on a leash, virtual or otherwise.”

After agonizing for a few nights over how to handle it all, I told my son that he needed to change his settings to private so pedophiles and other “creepy people” can’t follow his posts. He’s a clever kid and understood that I was on to him. It was an unspoken acknowledgment that I had seen what he was putting out there. So he’s gone private. The settings are locked. I asked if I could follow him on Instagram and he immediately said no.

Steinberg would say that parents need to “friend” their kids or follow them online. But what if they refuse? It’s well known that kids can be stealth and may “friend” their parents on one site or app, but post on another. Parents can pull the plug on the technology perhaps for a little while, or you can sneak a peak at their phones and devices, like I do regularly now, without any guilt.

™ & © 2012 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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