By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 2/9/2005 6:50:29 PM ET 2005-02-09T23:50:29

She did everything right. Her 14-year-old daughter's computer was in the living room. She even peeked over her shoulder once in a while during the girl's avid instant message chats to make sure nothing unusual was going on.

But the girl fell into a steamy Internet love affair with a 35-year-old man anyway. The mother was horrified and confused: How could this happen?

The family computer contained little evidence of the affair -- until the mother brought it to a police officer who spoke the right language. Instant message shorthand was to blame, he told her. Her daughter and the 35-year-old were so proficient at that cryptic language often spoken by cell phone text message users (r u there?) that they were having the affair right under the mother's nose.

"Mom is very responsible," said Susan Shankle, a South Carolina-based therapist who counseled the family, which requested anonymity. "She just didn't know the language."

After observing the case, Shankle and colleague Barbara Melton decided to set up training seminars for other therapists dealing with similar problems.

"Parents need to know what all those little alphabets mean. We've always said put the computer where you can see it, but that's not enough. You need to go over there and ask them what that stuff is. Even therapists were shocked at some of it."

Online personas can seem exciting
During the first few workshops, Shankle said, many therapists were familiar with very common shorthand terms like BRB (be right back). But others produced shock.

"'How about nifoc,' I asked, 'what does that mean?' No one knew. So I told them it means 'naked in front of computer.'  You should have seen their reaction," she said.

Often, the child isn't really naked in front of the computer, Melton said -- the children just like the idea of "titillating" other online users, and are fully capable of doing it within view of parents, she said.

"Kids can teach each other how to cover their tracks," she said.

Melton has a whole string of horror stories. In one case, a 12-year-old girl created three distinct online personas for instant message communication -- all much older, and sexually active. One persona was a 26-year-old woman with dominatrix tendencies, who worked as a real estate agent. The charade went on for three years, and didn't break down until one of the girl's suitors showed up at her house.

"She would talk about whips and chains and leather, but none of it was true. She was a virgin," Melton said. "She really was excited about getting other people worked up."

Instant messaging is as common as e-mail among youthful Internet users -- and teens are almost twice as likely to use it as adults, according to Teenage Life Online. Jupiter Research reported in 2003 that 70 percent of teenagers said instant messaging was their favorite online activity. And three years ago, the Pew Internet Project reported quite a disparity among parents and their children over Internet use.  While 61 percent of parents said they issued rules about Net use, only 37 percent of teen-agers said they were subjected to Net time restrictions.

Understanding how technologies like instant messaging work, and understanding how kids are using them, makes parents' jobs even more complicated, said longtime child safety advocate Parry Aftab, who now runs WiredSafety.org.

Video: Net dangers "None of the parents understand what their kids are saying. Even I don't," she said.  "And the smart ones are even writing around the monitoring software. Parents who are so into this that they are actually using monitoring software, it's not doing any good. There are parents who are actually seeing what their kids are typing, but if you don't understand what they are saying, what good is that?"

Aftab's volunteers have created a shorthand translator that parents can download at teenangels.org.

A language of their own
Dr. Bob Price, a school technology coordinator in Haworth, N.J., also trains parents how to deal with computers at home. He says instant message language isn't really anything new: kids have always had a language of their own, designed to keep out adults. 

"Children have always had little clubs and codes and been passing notes in class," he said.  "But now you have students not really hanging out like they used to hang out. Now they spend hours sending messages back and forth."

He recommends products like I.M. Control, which sets time limits on use, allowing parents to schedule the times kids can use instant message software.

But parents should even go a step further, Price said. They should sign up for their own instant message accounts -- even if it feels goofy. That's the only way for them to really see how easy it is to open four or five accounts with different identities, for example.

"Parents need to ... set aside time to get involved with it themselves," he said. "Sign up an account, know how it works. Do something with it so they can understand the culture better."

Still, technology won't really solve the problem, Aftab said. Parents need to be aware that their children may be using a language designed for evasion -- and learn to ask questions, even if they seem invasive.

"What you need to do is recognize that if you understand everything else they're saying, and suddenly they say something that doesn't make sense to you, they are saying something they don't want you to see. So you need to sit down and ask them what it is," she said. "And ultimately, know that all the filters in the world aren't really going to protect them. What you have to do is teach them well and trust the filter between their ears."

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