I normally like to inject some humor into this column but, occasionally, there are topics that need to be discussed that are very serious. Such is the case with Internet predators, cyber-bullying and other commonplace occurrences on social networking websites like Facebook and MySpace.

Social networking is a fabulous creation that has helped many people reconnect with high school friends, acquaintances, relatives and others who we lost contact with over the years. It is a great way to keep up to date with what our friends, children and grand-children are doing. Those are some of the positive sides of social networking. Unfortunately, there are some very serious negative issues associated with this type of media as well.

Every day we hear of horrific things happening to children because of a meeting with a stranger the child met on Facebook that turned out to be a predator in disguise. We hear of these stories and much worse every day, but what can we do?

With school starting again, our kids are using these sites more than ever. Banning or blocking children from Facebook will simply not work and can create a riff between child and parent. A recent study by McAfee found that 87 percent of teens ages 11 to 17 use other devices in addition to their home PCs to log on to their social networking sites like cell phones, gaming consoles and friend's computers. Blocking software and keyloggers are effective while they are at home, but once a child knows there is blocking software on a computer, they will find other ways to access social networking.

One way parents can see what is going on is to become Friends with their child on Facebook or MySpace. That way you can log on and get a pretty good idea what they are doing, who their friends are and what photos are being posted by them and about them, as well as what is being posted on their walls. Unfortunately, this is very time consuming and you cannot fully research who their friends really are and if they are predators posing as children.

There are some companies on the Internet that can help; one of them being SocialShield (www.socialshield.com). SocialShield has the latest technology to do the work for you and also cross-references friends with a network of websites to weed out would-be predators and report any dangerous content posted on social networks. Their slogan is "Smart Tools for Smart Parenting" and it seems to be a pretty good service. One of the things that caught my eye is the fact that they are web based and not software based so no matter where the child logs on their social networking sites, they are connected to SocialShield's monitoring service. They offer a 30-day free trial and then the service is $10 a month, which covers all children in the immediate family.

ReputationDefender (www.reputationdefender.com) is a company that claims to be able to protect your children and their reputation, but after checking out their service it seems to be priced considerably higher than SocialShield and the level of protection does not seem to be as good.

Whether you choose to protect your child with SocialShield or ReputationDefender, I recommend a free program to enhance your parenting duties. Internet Explorer History Viewer (http://www.nirsoft.net/utils/iehv.zip) is a great standalone tool that will show you all the places the computer has been, even if the cookies have been erased. Download the file to your desktop and run it whenever you want to see the history of that computer. No parent should be without this tool.

On a personal note, I was very saddened to hear of the passing of Joe LeChaix in August. I cannot say I knew Joe as well as some, but he was the kind of guy that when you first met him, you felt you knew him forever. Joe always made you feel like you were the most important person in his life when he was talking to you. He was an intelligent, funny guy who will be missed greatly by our community. Guys like Joe come along once in a lifetime and I am honored to have known him, however briefly.

Ahwatukee Foothills resident Mike Smothers is president of Smothers Computer Services. Send questions to mike@smotherscomputers.com or call (480) 753-7667.


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