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Linda Thomas
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Before parents resort to online surveillance tools, I recommend honest, open communication about Internet use. I also think it's essential to be actively involved on the social platforms "kids today" use so you are aware of how these ever-evolving sites and apps work and what's being posted. (Paul Sakuma/AP photo)

How to be an NSA-style parent watching kids' online activities

Revelations from U.S. fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden have many debating how much government surveillance of its citizens is justified.

When it comes to parents snooping on their kids' Internet use, the discussion is more personal with no right or wrong answers.

If you want to be an NSA-style mom or dad, there are many tools available to help you monitor their online and mobile use.

The first approach I recommend is to encourage honest, open communication about Internet use. I also think it's essential to be actively involved on the social platforms "kids today" use so you are aware of how these ever-evolving sites and apps work and what's being posted.

Not all parent-child relationships are like that, and not all adults want to bother with social and mobile media. There are many tools for parents to use for spying on their kids' online activities.

Here are four tools that range from innocuous to Big Brotherish. I am not endorsing any of these products, by the way, just letting you know what kind of surveillance services are available.

SafetyWeb collects social networking accounts and all available public information online about a child. Things like which photos or videos your child is sharing, who their "friends" are, and what they are posting publicly.

This service is the least invasive because it's collecting publicly posted information. The limitation is that posts that are marked as "private" or "friends only" won't come up in the system's search. Parents who are even somewhat savvy online should be able to search this public information themselves, but if they could pay for this service which costs $100.

Social Shield is a step up on the surveillance ladder because it requires a parent to have access to their child's social media passwords. Parents can then type in key words that would trigger an alert from the free monitoring system. It flags posts, photos and friends that might cause concerns for parents. The adult enters a series of key words, such as "alcohol" or "party" and the program sends a text alert when any of the images or discussions are related to those terms.

WebWatcher is a stealthy, sneaky keylogger program that lets an individual see all messages, keystrokes, screen shots and websites their kids visit. Real-time alerts of any suspicious activity will be sent to parents and there can also be a time-limit set on use of websites. Only want your child to spend 30 minutes a day on Facebook? The program will time his or her use and automatically disconnect after the time limit is reached. This product costs $170.

iHound Software takes surveillance to a physical level by putting up a geo-fence around your child's smartphone. You set the physical location of where your child should be and when, and if the child strays from that area parents will get an email alert. It's like an invisible fence for a dog, only applied to your child. That only costs $4 a year. It won't stop a teenager from taking his or her smartphone to school, leaving it in a locker, then skipping out of the boundary area without it. But the assumption is a teen would never be more than a few inches away from their technology.

Would you use any of these?

"The rise of social sites and smartphone apps are causing huge issues between parents and teens, says Kelli Krafsky a Seattle-area author who writes and speaks about "techlationships" - yes, technology and relationships.

"The key is for parents to be clear to their kids about the expectations of what is acceptable and unacceptable online. And then it is up to the parent to hold their child accountable by checking their kids' profiles."

If the kids are following the rules, then parents can spot check 1-3 times per week, she says. If kids are breaking the rules, then parents need to check more often.

"The goal is not to play gotcha," she says." The goal is for kids to know how to responsibly post things online in ways that protect their reputation and keep them safe."

Often young adults don't make the connection between their actions online and real world consequences. That's why it's important to stay involved with what they're doing.

"If you want any chance of your child leaving the nest before they turn 28, then parents should be checking out what their teen is posting, and help them make wise decisions for their future," says Krafsky.

A June 2013 study from the Digital Future Project finds 70 percent of parents say they monitor their child's online activity while on Facebook and other social media sites, and 46 percent have password access to their children's accounts.

About 30 percent of parents don't check up on their kids' online interactions because they trust them. Although many who don't keep track admit they don't know how to use social media sites.

Some of the software available for surveillance hasn't caught up with the newer versions of social media tools - like Snapchat - which don't leave as much of an online footprint to track where children have been and what they've done.

By LINDA THOMAS

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About Linda
Linda is the morning news anchor and features reporter for KIRO Radio. This is her local news blog, with an emphasis on social media, technology, Northwest companies, education, parenting, and anything else that grabs her attention.

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