Wednesday, April 19, 2006

How to help your kids use social networking Web sites more safely

Published: March 9, 2006
How to help your kids use social networking Web sites more safely

You may already know that blogging—keeping a public "Web log" or personal journal online—is common among teens and even younger kids.

Now kids can also create personal Web pages on social networking Web sites hosted by services like MSN Spaces, MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, and others. These Web pages can often be viewed by anyone with access to the Internet.

With these services, which are extremely popular among teenagers, kids can fill out profiles that can include:



Personal information such as full names, locations, and cell phone numbers

Often the services that host the social networking sites provide several different ways for people to communicate with one another, including blogging and instant messaging features.

Kids use social networking sites to connect with kids who might live halfway around the world and with kids whom they pass every day in the hallways at school.

Social networking can provide a helpful way for kids to express their emotions or even to perform unofficial background checks on other kids they meet at parties and at school. For example, after they meet another kid in person, a kid might visit that other kid's Web site to find out if he or she might be someone they'd like to be friends with.

Unfortunately, the information that kids post on their pages can also make them vulnerable to predators.

Here are several ways you can help your kids can use social networking Web sites more safely.

Set your own house Internet rules. As soon as your children begin to use the Internet on their own, it is a good idea to come up with a list of rules that you all can all agree on. These rules should include whether your children can use social networking Web sites and how they can use them. For more information on setting rules, see Using family contracts to help protect your kids online.

Ensure your kids follow age limits on the site. The recommended age for signing up for social networking sites is usually 13 and over. If your children are under the recommended age for these sites, do not let them use the sites. It is important to remember that you cannot rely on the services themselves to keep your underage child from signing up.

Educate yourself about the site. Evaluate the site that your child plans to use and read the privacy policy and code of conduct carefully. Also, find out if the site monitors content that people post on their pages. Also, review your child's page periodically. For more suggestions, see Tips on blogging safely for parents and kids.

Insist that your children never meet anyone in person that they've communicated with only online, and encourage them to communicate only with people they've actually met in person. Kids are in real danger when they meet strangers in person whom they've communicated with only online. You can help protect your children from that danger by encouraging them to use these sites to communicate with their friends, but not with people they've never met in person.

It might not be enough to simply tell your child not to talk to strangers, because your child might not consider someone they've "met" online to be a stranger. For more advice on protecting your children on the Internet, see Online Predators: What you can do to minimize the risk.

Ensure your kids don't use full names. Have your children use only their first names or a nickname, but not a nickname that would attract the wrong kind of attention. Also, do not allow your children to post the full names of their friends.

Be wary of other identifiable information in your child's profile. Many social networking sites allow kids to join public groups that include everyone who goes to a certain school.

Be careful when your children reveal this and other information that could be used to identify them, such as where they work or the name of the town they live in, especially if it is a small one.

Consider using a site that is not very public. Some social networking sites allow you to password-protect your site or use other methods to help limit viewers to only people your child knows. With MSN Spaces, for example, you can set permissions for who can view your site, ranging from anyone on the Internet to only people you choose.

Be smart about details in photographs. Explain to your children that photographs can reveal a lot of personal information. Encourage your children not to post photographs of themselves or their friends with clearly identifiable details such as street signs, license plates on their cars, or the name of their school on their sweatshirts.

Warn your child about expressing emotions to strangers. You've probably already encouraged your kids not to communicate with strangers directly online. However, kids use social networking Web sites to write journals and poems that often express strong emotions.

Explain to your children that these words can be read by anyone with access to the Internet and that predators often search out emotionally vulnerable kids. For more information, see 10 things you can teach kids to improve their Web safety.

Communicate with your children about their experiences. Encourage your children to tell you if something they encounter on one of these sites makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened. Stay calm and remind your kids they are not in trouble for bringing something to your attention.

Remove your child's page. If your children refuse to abide by the rules you've set to help protect their safety, you can contact the social Web site your child uses and ask them to remove the page. You may also want to investigate Internet-filtering tools (such as MSN Premium's Parental Controls) as a complement to—not a replacement for—parental supervision.

Do you want more information on helping protect your child on the Internet? See Kids and the Internet: Frequently asked questions.

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