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Tips: How to protect your kids on social networks

Consumer Reports News: May 11, 2011 09:08 AM

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Whether they're posting silly party pictures, answering "what-animal-are-you-most-like?" quizzes or just chatting about their day, today's kids, from middle school through college, share their lives with their friends via Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter—when they're not busy texting, that is.

Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, advises parents, educators, librarians, and policy makers on how kids can use the Web safely. She offers these tips for safe social networking:

  1. Be involved. Teens whose parents show interest in their online lives engage in less risk-taking behavior. Most teens dislike the idea of Mom or Dad monitoring their account, but if you show positive interest in their profile and online friends, most will open up.
  2. Take age restrictions seriously. For most sites, the minimum age is 13. Some kids lie about their age online, so it's up to parents to monitor online behavior. The services themselves can't keep your child from signing up.
  3. Explain (and check) protection features. When teens use protection features, and are careful about the material they post and the people they link to, these sites can be fairly safe. Generally, with the proper settings in place, the only people who can see what your child has posted are the people your child has linked to (sometimes called "friending" or "following").
  4. Warn kids about quizzes—and their privacy. You know those quizzes and contests that ask for your preferences on everything from pizza to music? Explain to your kids that these aren't just for fun. They're a means of soliciting personal-interest and contact information so that advertisers can better determine what kinds of messages to send to them. Some games—in particular those that ask for a cell phone number—can also lead to unexpected recurring monthly charges for services buried in the fine print.
  5. Make sure your kids accept new "friends" carefully. Tell them to start by linking just to friends they know and trust in the real world. As they get older, and if they show good judgment online, allow them to expand their friendships to include acquaintances—people they know exist in the real world because they have met them or a trusted friend knows them.
  6. Explain when to take things offline. A verbal fight between teens often continues online and via text messaging—and can get nastier in the social-networking medium. If a child receives hurtful messages, he should tell the person to stop and then block the person from communicating with him via social networking until the disagreement has been resolved offline.
  7. Teach your child to guard her reputation. If someone posts something damaging about her on a social-media site, she should tell the person to remove it. If things get worse, she should tell you. If it is not removed, file a complaint with the site.
  8. Explain that online means "forever." Teens must understand that anything they post (or even send to just one person) can easily become public and permanent. If a photo or post is embarrassing or demonstrates that they make bad choices, this material can be used against them and can damage their reputation, relationships and opportunities. 
—Kathy Sena

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