Make it Predator-Proof
You want your kids to be safe on social networking sites. And so do they. But you and your children may have different ideas about what that means. The first step: Ask to see their profile-tomorrow. That gives them time to clean up anything they know is offensive or unsafe. "It becomes a way to help teach them what not to post instead of being a 'gotcha' moment," says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org. Then ask your child to walk you through it. (The fictitious profile on Page 56 provides some hints on what to expect.)
You'll want to remove identifying details: last name, identifiable or suggestive screen name, hometown, and school name. Scan the photos as well: Can you see "Marblehead High School" on a building in the background? Internet safety experts would be happiest if kids didn't post pictures of themselves at all, because it makes them so easy to identify. Plus it reveals details about a child's physical maturity and appearance that might not be clear from a written description. But that's a tough sell since photos are a huge part of the appeal of these sites. Instead, make sure your child's photo isn't overtly suggestive or sexual. In the text, steer clear of comments that signal your child is emotionally vulnerable. Teens who say they're lonely, for example, may give predators an opening approach.
Take advantage of protection features. On MySpace, setting the page to private will keep strangers (and you) from viewing your child's profile. Also consider the option that requires your teen to approve all comments before they are posted.
Tattle. Read friends' profiles to make sure they're not putting your teen at risk. A teasing comment, whether true or not, recapping some late-night skinny-dipping is not something you want strangers to read. "You're only as safe as your friends are," says Michelle Collins, director of the Exploited Child Unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And remember the Internet's reach: Once kids post a photo of themselves vamping in their underwear, even if it's only in fun, that image is public and on some sites may be out of their control forever.
Most important, however, is talking with your children about what they're doing online and helping them develop their own critical thinking. "Teens are the final line of defense in terms of their own safety," says Collins.
This story appears in the September 18, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.