From his stunned expression, I couldn't tell whether Ed was about to sob or yell. His mouth formed the beginning of a word but no sound came out. He stared at the monitor, eyes blinking.
We were sitting together at his son's computer. Ed had invited me to help him surprise his thirteen-year-old boy with a birthday present. We were secretly installing the coolest online video game ever while his son was at school.
An hour earlier Ed, with all the confidence of an in-control father, had announced, "Geoff, I don't want the worries about sexual predation that other parents have with MySpace.com. I simply told Alex that he couldn't have a MySpace account and that was that."
While we waited for files to copy during the installation of the huge online car-racing game, Ed noticed the Google Desktop icon in the lower right corner of the screen and asked me about it. I explained that it indexes all the files stored on a computer for quick access. To demonstrate, I double clicked it and then typed what I thought would be a safe search word: "Alex." Google Desktop obeyed, instantly revealing links to hundreds of files on the computer, each of which contained the word Alex. I clicked the Web Pages category to open a list of links, one of which was a thumbnail photo of Alex.
"Hey, what's Alex's photo doing on that web page?" Ed asked.
"I don't know. Let's see," I replied, clicking the small image.
Alex's personal MySpace.com profile spilled onto the screen, complete with prominent photo of a grinning Alex. I watched Ed's head jerk with surprise as he took Alex's apparent noncompliance like a stinging slap in the face -and then things got worse.
I won't reveal Alex's MySpace profile address, but it contained the words "sexy" and "fun." Alex had listed his age as 30, a claim refuted by his photo which featured adolescent acne and braces -a combination rare for a man who would be 8 years out of college! The risquÃ© comments from friends listed on Alex's profile only fed Ed's alarm. He remained calm as we finished the install of the game, but I could sense inner angst. Indeed, the birthday gift was morphing into what would be a very uncomfortable evening for Alex.
On one hand, I felt bad for the accidental exposition. However, on the other hand, parents ought to know what their minor children are doing on computers. MySpace is only one of many social networking sites where kids can meet and talk to friends (and predators). A number of these sites have few or ineffective restrictions for minors.
Three of the of the best pieces of advice I've seen for parents concerned about their child's activities on social networking sites are:
1) Learn and remain aware of any online profile your child's has and review it regularly.
2) Occasionally sit at the computer with your child and surf the profiles of other people together, discussing what personal information seems dangerous for others to have shared, and what profile content is appropriate.
3) Keep kids' computers in a high traffic area of the home, not hidden for private use in the bedroom.
Finally, Alex's new game was installed and Ed walked me out to the front door. He still seemed shell-shocked. I racked my brain for something positive to say, but the best I could do was, "Boy, Alex is sure going to be surprised and thrilled about the game when he gets home."
"Yes, he'll be surprised, alright," Ed answered. "Say, how easy is it to uninstall that game?"