If you can’t beat them, join them. So, moms and pops are joining social networking sites to see what their kids are doing. But it’s still too early to figure out whether these guardian-angel roles will turn brats into cherubs.

Anushka Goyal has 2,340 friends on Orkut, the popular social networking site. She hasn’t met most of them, but doesn’t mind sharing details of her daily activities with them; her online diary is available for all to view. Long chats with these online buddies is also part of her internet life. But this was before her father found out about it. The 16-year-old had no idea that her dad had gained access to her Orkut profile.

“When I read about the Adnan Patrawala murder, I decided to keep a tab on my daughter to find out what she was doing on Orkut,” explains Nitin Goyal. So he created an Orkut profile and altered his privacy settings so that he could visit Anushka’s page without her knowledge. “I was shocked. My daughter was spending long hours talking to complete strangers,” says Goyal, who assigned a net nanny (a software that keeps tabs on a child’s surfing habits) to monitor Anushka’s online activities.

Social networking is a virtual world governed by a different set of rules, where your affluence depends on the number of friends you have, and your personality-type judged by the pictures you choose to display. For a long time, most luddite parents had no idea what instant messaging was, let alone, social networking. But the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Adnan by his friends, and the hype surrounding his Orkut profile, has put many parents on alert.

Moms, who once found it difficult to manoeuvre a mouse, are now gearing up to track the bread-crumb trails of their network-addicted children, creating fake profiles just to play snoop. Says 32-year-old Sana Shaikh, a mother of 12-year-old tweenager Zeeba, “I’ve made accounts on Facebook and Orkut, both of which my daughter belongs to. I log in almost every night to find out who my daughter is befriending online. It was difficult in the beginning but I am picking up the skills now,” says Shaikh.

But not all parents think that spying on their children’s online activities is the best way to go about it. Businessman and father of three, Ketan Parikh, prefers the more open approach of talking to his children and informing them of the dangers of befriending strangers. “It’s not feasible for me to keep such a close check on my children,” he says.

Psychologist Neha Patel agrees. “You have to take into account the time factor. It isn’t the most feasible thing to do, especially when both are working parents. It’s better to spend quality time with children instead of spying on them.”

Tanvi Mehta prefers Patel’s approach. “I trust my daughter who is a member of Facebook. Besides, she’s not allowed to access the internet late at night, and there’s always an adult in the room when she is online. I even recognise all the friends she has on her profile.”

Because of the anonymity the internet encourages, it’s easy for children to walk into the waiting arms of stalkers and paedophiles. “Like in the real world, there are anti-social elements on these sites, too. Parents don’t believe that they are spying. They are just doing their duty by tracing their child’s footsteps online. It’s a fine line, one that only a parent can cross,” says Ravindra Karve, manager, Computer Society of India.

But many teens and school children who are online say they get the information to protect themselves from their friends. Gaurav Sahni, 21, a member of three social networks says: “It is friends who give you the lowdown on the do’s and don’ts.” The rest is up to the children.

It’s up to the parents as well. For, how will moms explain to kids they are not spies but friends? How will they assure them that they are not stepping into their free space?

If anything, it’s like questioning the very essence of the internet. It’s like arguing against the future.

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