Being Internet Savvy
Syndicated technology columnist Larry Magid wants parents to start networking just as their kids do. This may not mean getting your own MySpace (although that might be fun), but he does think that the best way for parents to keep their kids safe is to understand the online community themselves. That means keeping up with trends and understanding just what it is that the kids can do and are doing.
Magid, who is the founder of BlogSafety.com, says kids have so many options these days for going online that merely monitoring them at home is not sufficient. "Nowadays, kids go online at school, at the library, at friends' houses and via their cell phone," he says. "The dialogue between parents and children has to go beyond putting computer restrictions in the home. Parents have to be aware of what their kids are doing."
Fads and Friends
Just as adults and teenagers listen to very different music, they use the Internet differently. Anne Collier, executive director and editor of Net Family News (www.netfamilynews.org), says for teens it's all about staying in touch with their friends and making new friends.
"For kids it's all about social networking," Collier says. "They don't care as much about services and other things we use the Internet for. And their tools for social networking are multiplying, with IM on their mobile phones now along with text messaging. This is a very superficial form of communication, but it does allow them to set up meetings and make dates and just keep in touch."
This social networking aspect is reflected in the latest Nielsen/NetRatings, which show that the top 10 social-networking sites now reach 45 percent of active Web users. The figures weren't broken down by age; if they were, it's certain that number would be much higher for teenagers.
The point of sites such as BlogSafety.com and Net Family News is to start parents using the Internet the same way their children do. Magid laughingly calls it "our revenge against MySpace."
"We're trying to start a conversation that's parent centered where parents, teens and experts can get together and talk," says Magid. "In other words, we're trying to get parents to do what the kids are already doing, which is just to talk to each other. Parents can network with other parents just as their teens do with other teens. It's all about being a savvy Internet parent."
Online Friends and Foes
Some of the sites teens use most often for their social networking are MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, MSN Spaces, MyYearbook, Hi5 and Friendster. Naturally, these sites are also used by those who want to target our teens in unsavory ways. Catherine Dempsey of Hoboken, N.J., says she had talked to her kids, ages 17, 15 and 13, about online safety from the time they each started using the Internet. Then, when she started hearing about sexual predators on MySpace, she sat them down again.
"I knew that all three of them had their actual pictures on their sites, and I told them I was worried about their safety," says Dempsey. "Basically, their response was to roll their eyes and say, 'Mom, the kids who get in trouble like that are young kids who either don't have any common sense, are looking for attention from the adults in their lives or are already messed up.' That was a real revelation to me: My kids had it together. I stopped worrying right then. There will always be kids out there who allow themselves to be exploited for whatever reason. I'd managed to teach my kids how to avoid that. It was clear to me that they were very active about avoiding those online pitfalls."
Dempsey's a mom who's always paid attention to her kids. They have family dinners most nights, and she's always monitored who her kids are with and where they are. They also have rules for computer use: doors open, computer turned off after 10 p.m. and no secretive behavior.
That's what Magid recommends as the best defense against online predators and other misuses of the Internet by teens: Be a close family. "Have conversations, and give kids a lot of control over the conversation," he says. "Listen carefully to what they're interested in, and don't be afraid to question them. Then go look it up and learn about their technology."
Beyond that, be informed, say both Magid and Collier. Know what the trends are by keeping up through sites such as BlogSafety.com and SafeKids.com. If you suspect that your child is engaging in behavior that may be harmful to him or her, such as making arrangements to meet strangers or visiting anorexia sites on the Web, don't be afraid to snoop. This is not the ideal first approach, but keeping your kids safe is your ultimate goal.
For younger children, filters are appropriate, but they don't generally work well for teens. This is partly because teens have so many other ways to go online besides the home computer, and partly because by the time they're teenagers they're usually savvy enough to figure out how to get around most filtering devices.
"Ultimately it is the kids that have to protect themselves," says Magid. "When you're 16, you are in charge of your own [body] and have to take responsibility just as you do for sex and driving and all those other things teens begin to do. The only filter that really works is the one that runs between their ears."