June 9, 2009 -- Over the next few weeks, kids across the country will cascade from the classroom to the beach and beyond. But along with their summer freedom will come more time to text, surf the Internet, play video games and potentially give their parents massive technology-enabled headaches.
"Summertime brings a change of schedules and a change of routine," said Whitney Meagher, program coordinator for health and welfare for the Parent Teacher Association. Not only do kids have more free time, they're also often away from supervising eyes, she said.
If you're like most parents, Meagher said, chances are, you feel overwhelmed by all of the technology and (technology-enabled troubles) out there.
But, with the help of a few child technology experts, ABCNews.com compiled the following tips.
1. Know what they're checking out online.
No matter the age of your child or the size of your budget, several tools exist to help you safeguard and monitor your child's Internet surfing.
For starters, Cat Schwartz, the blogger behind HiTechMommy.com and eBay's gadget and toy director, recommends paying attention to the parental control settings on your computer's Internet browser.
Whether you use Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome or countless others, she said, you have the flexibility to customize your child's online experience.
"You can tweak them like there's no tomorrow," she said, to make sure that your kids can't accidentally wander on to porn sites or others that specialize in adult content.
But for older kids who might be savvy enough to manipulate the settings to serve their own needs, she said a number of more sophisticated options exist.
For example, McAfee's Family Protection software ($39.99), launched this month, lets parents create accounts for each of their children that blocks Web sites and alerts them via text message and e-mail when kids try to access off-limit sites. It also filters YouTube videos and provides parents with detailed reports of the sites their kids visited (along with banned sites they tried to visit).
For parents who want more insight into their children's online habits, Schwartz recommends key logging programs that record a child's entire online experience.
For $99.95, Spector Pro, from the SpectorSoft Corporation, will provide keystroke and snapshot recording of every action your child makes while at the computer. The program monitors everything from e-mail to Web browsing to instant messaging, and then gives you PDFs of a child's online session.
McGruff SafeGuard, from the National Crime Prevention Council, is a free option that lets parents limit and monitor their child's online activity.
Manage Online Communications, Limit Time With Tech
2. Manage their e-mail, instant messaging and online social networking.
Since kids won't have face time with their classmates in school, they'll likely use technology to keep in touch with their friends.
"They're not necessarily seeing their friends all day, so social networking is very important," said David Klenske, director of worldwide product marketing for McAfee.
Their new tool monitors kids' social networking and instant messaging communication and alerts parents immediately when kids try to reveal personal information (like home addresses) online.
It lets parents pre-approve e-mail addresses of their kids' friends and block unfamiliar e-mail addresses. The program can also prevent kids from entirely accessing Web-based mail programs (such as Hotmail and Gmail) that open kids to communication with strangers.
3. Consider limiting their technology time.
If your kids really can't say "no" to their technology, try using a hi-tech tool to help them.
A number of the monitoring software products, like McAfee's Family Protection, include timers that let you limit the amount of time your kids spend online. But Schwartz said a variety of external gadgets serve the same purpose.
For $29.95, the Power Cop locks the power cord from devices such as TV sets, video game consoles, computers, etc., and lets parents regulate the time kids can spend with their technology.
For $89.95, the Time-Scout Monitor assigns each child his or her own account card and a time allowance. When the child swipes the card in the reader, it activates the device and starts a count-down on their time with the machine attached to the monitor.
Pay Attention to What Interests Them
4. Know what they're playing and set parental controls when necessary.
When it comes to video games, experts advise parents to pay attention to what their kids want to play.
"Parents need to be conscious of what their kids are doing," said the PTA's Meagher. Partnering with the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the PTA created guides to the parental control settings on the various video game platforms (Nintendo's Wii, Sony's PlayStation, Microsoft's Xbox, etc.).
The guide helps parents choose age-appropriate games and change the settings on the games so that children are only exposed to the content deemed acceptable by parents.
The online resource What They Like also gives parents detailed insights and guidance into the video games that their kids want to play.
Watch Their Cell Usage
If you're worried that your child's text messaging volume will balloon with all his or her extra time, consider an unlimited text messaging plan.
Depending on your wireless service provider, you could also limit their usage and their content downloads. For $4.99 a month, Verizon gives parents the ability to block numbers, set voice and messaging allowances and create time restrictions so that kids can only receive or send calls and messages during certain times of the day. AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile have similar plans, some for no extra charge.
Schwartz said software like Mobile Spy lets parents silently record text messages, GPS locations and call information for their children. The software starts at $49.97 for three months and lets parents know the contents of text messages and when and with whom calls are made and received.
Find Them From Your Phone or Computer
6. Locate them anytime, anywhere.
The summer brings out the adventurous spirit in most kids and, especially if they're new drivers, you might want to consider tracking them with one of a variety of GPS options.
Depending on your phone, you could use Google's free Latitude service. After downloading Google Maps, Latitude lets you pinpoint your child's exact location from a cell phone or computer.
But wireless service providers, like Verizon and AT&T, also offer their own GPS locator services. For $9.99 a month, Verizon's Chaperone lets you locate your child at anytime (as long as you both are using phones that support the service). It also lets you set up geographical boundaries around specific locations so that you get a text message alert whenever your child moves out of that zone.
For $5 a month, Sprint's Family Locator lets you find you children from any Web-enabled computer or mobile phone. Like Verizon's plan, you can get automatic notifications of a child's location.
If you want more flexibility and an enhanced ability to track, Schwartz suggests you use the palm-sized Zoombak. Just put the device in a car's glove compartment or the bottom of your child's bag and it will let you use the Web or cell phone to find its location.
Starting at $99.99, plus $14.99 each month, the compact device can give you a continuous, automatic update of its location every 5 minutes for up to an hour. The company also gives you a record of where the device has been for up to 7 days.
But regardless of what you use, Schwartz urges parents to remain honest with their kids.
"Keeping the lines open will help kids understand why these "things" have been put into place," she said. "Honesty about the topic is key as well because if they catch you -- and never underestimate this generation, they are often far more savvy than us -- being sneaky, they will feel the broken trust and act accordingly."
Do the Research to Keep Costs Down
7. Arm campers and teenage travelers with cost-effective technology.
If your kids are heading off to camp or planning to do a little globe-trotting this summer, call your wireless service provider to make sure you don't get hit with whopping roaming or international calling rates.
AT&T says it has roaming agreements with 200 countries and a variety of voice and data packages depending on your needs and travel plans. But it recommends that you call the company to make sure you choose the right plan.
Or, if you want to suspend your child's cell phone line for the summer and let them get a pre-paid cell phone when they arrive at their destination, ask about suspension policies. Verizon wireless, for example, charges $15 per month (as opposed the regular monthly rate) to suspend a line for up to 90 days as long as an account is current.
If you want to keep track of particularly daring offspring, Schwartz recommends purchasing personal locator beacons (like lojack devices for people). The portable transmitters send signals to a satellite system to pinpoint anyone anywhere on the Earth's surface. They're pricey (some are as much as $600) but $200-$300 versions are available on Amazon and eBay.
8. Hem in their music purchases.
Summer pool parties and beach outings wouldn't be the same without the right soundtrack.
But as your kids download music from music sites like Apple's iTunes store, you can set limits on their purchases by tweaking the parental controls, featured in the "preferences" section.
You can choose to restrict them to movies and songs below a certain rating (PG-13, G, etc.) or rope off songs with explicit language.
Set Ground Rules and Talk to Your Kids
9. Keep the old-fashioned communication lines open.
Most importantly, the PTA's Meagher said, technology-enabled communication and parenting are never substitutes for the real things.
"Talking to your kids, above all, is the number one tip," said Meagher. Ask what they're doing online, spend a little time to watch what they're playing and talk to them about the limits you establish, she said.
During the summer, kids might spend entire days at their friends' houses, under different sets of rules, Meagher pointed out.
And she said, "Parents should consider having a conversation with those parents."
Schwartz also emphasized that it's crucial for parents to listen to their kids.
"Used in the right way, technology can be a parents' best friend," she said. "Establish ground rules but listen to their needs when you establish them. You have to understand that it is important to them."