It's the coolest hangout space for teens-but parents might be surprised at what their kids do there. Here's how to help keep them safe online
But this is not the time to give in to your inner technophobe. You may have never sent an instant message, uploaded a video, or written a blog, but you can help your kids develop the judgment to better protect their safety online and set standards that will help guide their behavior. This is especially important since legislation that recently passed the House of Representatives and is currently under consideration by the Senate would ban social-networking sites from schools and libraries, leaving parents as the only consistent adult arbiter of their children's day-to-day social-networking behavior.
The problem with the Internet isn't necessarily that sketchy strangers try to entice kids to meet them in person. Strangers approach children on terra firma as well. The problem is that online there are no physical cues to alert a teenage girl that the "boy" who's IMing her about a hot new band is actually a 45-year-old pedophile who's interested in sharing a lot more than his play-list. One of the ways to protect your child is to make sure his or her profile is stripped of identifying details, come-hither photos, and the sort of "I'm lonely" comments that are a red flag for predators (box, below). Another important step is to tackle the issue of making friends online head-on.
Strangers. First, you should understand that "friend" doesn't necessarily have the same meaning on MySpace that it does in the offline world. When your teen creates a profile, Tom Anderson, one of the MySpace founders and a man your child will almost certainly never meet, automatically becomes her first friend, and his name and photo appear on her page. "'Friends' means this is a collection of people I want to pay attention to online," says Boyd. A teen may add a friend because she wants to receive bulletins from this person. Bulletins are announcements someone sends to everyone on his or her list of friends about upcoming parties, for example, or noteworthy events. Or the new pal could be someone who shares a similar interest, such as the same hobby or sport. More troubling, though, some teens accept total strangers as friends in an attempt to boost the total number of friends noted on their page and so appear popular.
Some parents set rules about MySpace friends: MySpace is where you gab with friends you already have, not make new ones. Period. At a minimum, "a parent needs to have a chat with their child about risks," says Larry Magid, coauthor of the new book MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking. "People may not be who they say they are; they may be misrepresenting their motives." The wealth of detailed personal information people post online makes social-networking sites fertile ground for predators. While the material may seem innocuous-a home state or a list of favorite TV shows-a predator can use it to his advantage. "The sites help offenders find targets that are close by," says Brad Russ, the former police chief in Portsmouth, N.H., and director of the Internet Crimes Against Children Training and Technical Assistance Program, a Department of Justice effort to help local law enforcement agencies better respond to online sexual exploitation. "One way to break the ice with a child is to become knowledgeable about something that child likes to do," says Russ. Once a child is comfortable E-mailing or IMing the new confidant about, say, who's a favorite on American Idol, conversation easily shifts to more personal topics. Eventually, it won't seem strange to the child if the new pal suggests a face-to-face meeting.