What should you do if online bullies are tormenting your child?
Over dinner, a friend of a friend told me that he knew a mother who was policing her 13-year-old child's life through his Facebook account.
"She's always logging on as him," he told us.
He then went on to say that not only was she using Facebook to spy on what he was up to, she was also using his account to email his "friends" who were bullying him to tell them off.
"Talk about an embarrassing parent!" said the friend.
Everyone round the dinner table laughed it off but, after they had gone, I found myself thinking about the subject.
Facebook etiquette when you have teenagers is a minefield. For me, reading my 14-year-old son's Facebook page would be akin to peeking at his diary. Every parent knows this is not on. I kept a diary when I was his age, and if I had known my mother had looked at it -- which she probably did, secretly -- I would have been furiously and toe-curlingly embarrassed.
The point of our diaries was that they were private -- they expressed thoughts we wanted to express but didn't want other people to read.
Facebook is the opposite. It is like one huge, teenage socialising club. But sometimes it's not just about communicating with friends. Sometimes it tips over into bullying -- and every parent knows the pain of being picked on.
"Facebook is a problem because kids are bombarded with more information than they know how to cope with," says Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and author of The Happy Child.
"But, for me, it's a trust issue. The parent must not go in to their child's Facebook site unless they are asked to. Nothing wobbles a kid as much as having their trust in their parent undermined. It's what is important in the first few months of their lives -- trust and safety, being looked after, being held. This is how bonds are made between the parent and the child. It's the key thing, so it is absolutely wrong to spy on them."
When I recounted Blair's view to a friend of mine two days later, however, she was incensed. I asked her how far we should go in policing our children online. "As far as we can!" she said. "I think the mother had every right to log on and try to sort out her son's bullies." She then told me that her own son had been horribly bullied on Facebook.
"He has been called names and groups of his so-called friends at school have ganged up against him." She said they regularly go on her 14-year-old son's Facebook page and taunt him.
"They encourage other people to do it," she said. "Teenagers my son has never met. They even sent him to Coventry the other week, so suddenly no one at all contacted him on Facebook, and he was so upset he couldn't sleep."
Eventually, it got so bad that my friend went to see the parents of the worst offenders -- they were all children at his school.
"I went door-to-door and confronted them about whether or not they knew their children were being so horrible to my son online. Most of them hadn't a clue." She said the reaction of the parents differed from family to family.
"Some were really embarrassed and said they'd talk to their child about it."
These parents, she said, were genuinely shocked that their child would bully someone online. "I was surprised that they had so little knowledge of what their children were up to."
Should parents police their children's Facebook accounts? My friend believes they should. "How else are you going to know what's happening to them?"
Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist and author of The Spoilt Generation, disagrees: "The problem is that of course parents want to know what's going on with their children and that's why they police them. But really the parent needs to control it better. Children can't cope with bullying if they don't understand it."
Blair feels getting involved is only the right thing to do if the child has invited the parent to do so.
"If your child asks you for help then yes, help them. We want to help but we also need to encourage them to police it themselves. They need to understand the difference between private and public and we need to empower them."
What incensed my friend more, however, were those parents who were angry at her for going round to speak to them about the online behaviour of their children.
"Some saw me as being a busybody. They thought my son had brought it on himself. I came across some people who were really rude to me. They were, in effect, telling me to butt out of my own child's business."
So what are we to do about all this? The problem arises when Facebook is used for bullying or as a test of popularity, rather than as a communication tool. Teenagers these days have a huge online presence -- my son would almost rather stay in and talk to friends on Facebook than actually go out and meet people -- which means that all the usual things that happen in real life, such as bullying, also move online. This doesn't mean it is less painful for the person being bullied.
"It's not going to go away," says Blair. "It's horrible to be bullied but we have to teach our kids to deal with it. Ultimately, our parental job is to let them go, and that means to stop over-protecting them. I know that's harsh, but it's how it is."
Sigman is of a similar view, saying: "Children need to have real friends, real bonds. They need to be able to learn how to read people: their vocal nuances, the way they stand and so on. That is how they learn to deal with others. Cyber-bullying is unaccountable and, in a way, it's not real. It's a spineless, cowardly thing to do, that the person wouldn't do to someone's face."
Many parents, however, may not agree. A look at the online forum Parenting Matters reveals that many parents are concerned about Facebook. Mothers worry about their children's morals being warped and about their lack of "real" friends versus online ones.
That this is all going on via a computer makes them feel out of control.
Administrator and founder of Parenting Matters, the GP Clare Bailey, says that it is a good idea to set boundaries with your child.
"Put the laptop somewhere you can see, and let your child know what is acceptable and what isn't," she advises.
However, it is a moot point whether or not parents should actively police it. "I think it's fine for parents to keep a watchful on eye on what is going on," says Bailey, who runs classes on how to cope with teenagers. She admits to having joined Facebook in order to keep an eye on her four children.
"My daughter has let me be her friend, but my three sons haven't. That's OK, but I think the main thing for parents is that teenagers are often too ashamed to tell them about what is going on.
"So it does need policing. But there has to be an element of trust that works both ways. They have to remember that what goes on the internet is like a tattoo. It's easy to put it there but difficult to remove. This is why parents get so concerned about it."
Sigman believes the buck stops with the parents.
"Of course mothers want to know what's going on with their children, so they resort to constantly being a detective. Yet they are little suited to it. The solution is never to have a screen in your child's room, manage the hours they spend online, and encourage real relationships. They need a strong sense of affirmation and supportive friends in the flesh. Then they can survive."My daughter has let me be her friend on Facebook, but my three sons haven't and that's okay