By Meghan Vivo
If your son or daughter is like most teens, they spend a lot of time locked in their rooms on the computer. What are they doing in there?
Although you'd like to think they're busily finishing their homework or doing research for an assignment, they're most likely updating their Facebook page or instant messaging their friends.
While these activities may sound innocent enough, it's important for parents to watch carefully to ensure that their teens are safe online.
The Truth About Social Networking Sites
Social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook are places teens go to share their lives with friends. The popularity of these sites has made it so most teens - and even most parents - now have a Facebook or MySpace account.
But before you feel too confident just because you know your teen has a Facebook or MySpace account, consider whether you really know what your child is doing on these sites.
According to a poll of 1,013 teens by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that tracks children's media usage, parents consistently underestimate how much time their kids spend on social networking sites and how often they engage in risky behavior, such as posting explicit photos of themselves, bullying other teens or hacking into other people's accounts.
The poll also revealed the following findings:
Although much of the information posted on social networking sites should be private, not all teens use the appropriate settings to protect their personal details from strangers, making these sites particularly attractive to online predators, scammers and identity thieves. Nothing posted on the Internet is ever truly private, and information posted today may be there forever.
Making the Internet a Safe Place for Your Teen
Your teen may be home, in your line of sight, and still be in danger. You may never know all of the details of what your teen is doing online, but you can take a number of steps to guard their safety:
Recognize the Risk. Knowing the dangers lurking on the Internet is the first step toward protecting your child. The following are just a few of the risks:
Fortunately, most teens aren't interested in talking with strangers, especially creepy old men, and want to protect themselves from scams as much as you do. Those who are most vulnerable to the advances of strangers and other online dangers are teens who have lied about their age or are engaging in other risky behaviors like drug or alcohol use.
Conduct Your Own Investigation. To be an effective parent, you have to know what risks your child is facing. Visit the websites your teen frequents, learn how they work and decide if they are a safe place for your teen.
If your teen has a Facebook or MySpace page, one of the conditions of use should be that your teen gives you the passwords. This way, you can check their personal profile and monitor the amount of personal information they post online (though there is always a risk that they have multiple accounts and pages). Also consider setting up your own page and ask your child to allow you to become a friend on their account.
Set Rules with Your Teen. Have a frank conversation with your teen about your concerns. Together, decide what kind of information your child can make public, which websites are off limits and how much time your child can spend on the computer. Many parents limit their children's Internet time to 30-60 minutes per day and require that homework be completed before any online time begins (including instant messaging). One of the most important rules is that your teen never meets someone in person that they met online.
While you can enforce the rules in your own home, your teen may have Internet access at school and friends' houses, so be sure they understand the importance of using the Web responsibly even when you're not around.
Keep the Computer in a Central Location. Today's teens know more about technology than their parents, which makes it difficult for parents to monitor what teens are doing online. Putting the computer in a central place in the house (such as the kitchen or living room) will make your job a bit easier.
Help Your Teen Keep Private Information Private. In an effort to rack up a massive number of friends on their account to prove their popularity, many teens accept friend requests from people they don't really know. Make sure your teen is selective in who they share their information with and realizes that not everyone is who they say they are.
Also instruct your teen to keep their passwords private and never share first and last names, home addresses, social security numbers, class schedules, cell phone numbers, lists of friends or personal photographs on the Internet. If your teen is uncomfortable with anything that happens online, let them know they can come to you.
Because information can stay on the Internet permanently, can be copied and changed, and can be difficult, if not impossible, to take back, teens should avoid using social networking sites to share their deepest secrets or confessions. College recruiters and employers routinely search the Internet before accepting an applicant, and any lapses in judgment can come back to haunt a teen years later.
Even though there are risks involved, the Internet isn't your enemy, and there are many ways to responsibly enjoy the Web. With your careful oversight, your teen can explore the Internet with minimal risks and minimal worry on your part.