Tips For Keeping Your Child Safe on Social Networking Sites

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The popularity of social networking sites and mobile phone texting among teens and even younger children opens new doors to online dangers. So how can you protect both your child and your computer?
By Jenn Danko

Idle summertime means your kids have more opportunity to browse online. You may find your child parked in front of the family computer spending hours at a time on popular social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace. As a parent, do you really know who your child is communicating with—or, in some instances, does your child even know?

According to statistics published by, 71 percent of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 have received messages on social networking sites from strangers. And with 76 percent of parents having no rules in place for their kids when using the computer, according to the site, the chances of your child running into a predator can be quite real.

How to Keep Your Child Safe
Take the proper precautions to ensure your child is safe, says Judi Westberg Warren, president of Web Wise Kids. In partnering with NASCAR and, Web Wise Kids is promoting the Safe Search Schools program to elementary classrooms across the country to educate children on safe Internet searching.

“The most important thing to remember is to use a team approach with kids and not threaten to disconnect them from the Internet,” Westberg Warren says. “That is the one thing that they fear most, so they will hide things from you.”

We have enlisted help from Internet safety experts to weigh in on other issues you may face with an Internet savvy teen or child, and how you can guide them to safer online practices.

Independent E-mail Account
Scenario: My teenager wants his own e-mail account. Should I allow him to have one?
Solution: It depends on his age, says Mark Rausch, an attorney and former head of the U.S. Department of Justice Computer Crime Unit. Most social networking sites prohibit children under 14 to join, Rausch says, so such standards could be a benchmark.

“When I did allow my child to have an account, I had the password,” he says. He also recommends making sure your child is not using a separate account he may have set up on his own. “Check the Internet history on the family computer if you suspect he has another e-mail account.”

Social Networking Sites
Scenario: My daughter uses social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. How can I make sure she is using them safely?
Solution: Sit down with your daughter and scrutinize the privacy settings on each site, Rausch suggests. “Set the settings in a way that is appropriate to the age and maturity of your child,” he says. In some cases, you may want to list false information on the site to better protect your child. “If your child is 17, list her as 97. That way, someone who is searching for 17-year-old girls won’t find her.” While such actions may violate the terms of use, it offers some level of protection and anonymity.

Personal Computers
Scenario: My young son wants to use the computer in the privacy of his own room. Should I let him?
Solution: Not according to parent and IT expert Bill Horne, a Massachusetts-based consultant with a strict approach to Internet safety. Not only does he place the family computer in the living room, he also gives his son a separate “Limited User” ID.

“I put a separate password for the administrator account and changed the PC settings so that only the administrator could install software, add toolbars, change settings or do anything else that might compromise the PC,” he says.

Such measures will not only prevent your child from unknown predators, it will also protect your computer from harmful viruses and downloads.

Cell-Phone Safety
Scenario: I want my daughter to have a mobile phone for emergency purposes. How can I ensure she doesn’t abuse it or put herself in danger through text messaging?
Solution: Cell phones are like small computers these days, Westberg Warren says. She adds that 85 percent of kids under the age of 17 own a cell phone, and that 40 percent of them have sent or posted a sexually suggestive message.

Parents should know that sending suggestive or nude images with a camera phone can have legal consequences relating to child pornography laws.

To avoid such problems, Westberg Warren recommends first talking to your child and researching the parental controls on the phone before he or she starts using it. Or, get your child a cell phone without Internet or a camera. “Parents cannot foresee everything that their child may do if they have not instituted parental controls,” she says.

“Friending” Your Child
Scenario: Should I “friend” my child on MySpace or Facebook so I can see what my child is doing and with whom he or she is communicating?
Solution: Rausch says such measures may only be necessary if you suspect your child is in danger. “This is the equivalent to breaking into their room and reading their electronic diary,” he says, noting such action could be construed as an invasion of privacy. Talk to them first and join only as a last resort, he says.

The most important thing to remember in encouraging kids to be safe—whether they are in front of a computer or not—is to maintain an open dialogue. “The main thing you have to do is see Internet use as a partnership between you and your kids,” Westberg Warren says.

Recommended Resources
Safe Surfing Statistics
By Jenn Danko
Approaching your child about safe Web surfing practices is more important than you may think. According to research compiled by, 61 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have a personal profile on social networking sites—and 44 percent of them have been contacted by a stranger. Compare that to teens without online profiles: Only 16 percent of them report ever being contacted by a stranger.

Look Both Ways: Help Protect Your Family on the Internet
By Linda Criddle
Help make the Internet a safer place for you and your family. Linda Criddle, a child safety expert, offers information about what is safe, what is not and how you can protect your child from some of cyber space’s most harmful elements.

Safety Monitor: How to Protect Your Kids Online
By Mike Sullivan
Safety Monitor provides hands-on, step-by-step, practical instruction for parents. The book includes tips for making an “online contract” signed by both parents and children, how to configure a browser and load child-protection software programs, and how to supervise your child’s Internet activity, to name a few.

Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly
By Nancy Willard
Learn the essential strategies to keep children and teens safe online. Willard shows how simple safety rules can be easily transferred from the real world to the cyber world, even if you lack your kid’s tech-savvy skills.

How to Protect Your Children on the Internet: A Road Map for Parents and Teachers
By Gregory S. Smith
In this parent-friendly read, Smith outlines methods for protecting children against online threats. He also shows parents the ways kids can get around basic barriers that many parents set up.

The Internet and Your Kids: Healthy Habits for a Safe Online Home Directed
By Brian Dixon
Safe Internet practices start with sound parenting in the home. By encouraging an open dialogue about Internet use, parents can feel more secure that their kids are browsing the Web safely. This video teaches how to instill healthy habits for a safe online experience.

A Parent’s Video Guide to
Directed by Brian J. Dixon
This DVD offers a step-by-step video tour of Facebook to help protect your kids online.

American Library Association Presents: Great Websites for Kids
Whether they love animals, the arts, science or literature, American Library Association’s recommended list of Web sites for kids will encourage them to safely surf the Web. Direct them to the site and feel safe about your child’s Internet whereabouts.

Kidzu: The Internet for Kids
This online playground and library for your kids will allow them to “learn, play and discover more than 2 million games, Web sites and videos approved by parents like you.”

Web Wise Kids
In partnering with the American Library Association, Web Wise Kids, a national non-profit organization dedicated to helping kids make wise choices online, provides resources for parents to monitor their children’s Internet and cell phone usage. The site includes downloadable games for both parents and children.

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