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Internet Safety for Kids

MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter can help teens connect with friends — but can leave them vulnerable to bullying and worse, too. Here's how to keep your kid safe online.

WebMD Commentary from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Bob Tedeschi
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo

Three years ago, when our daughter Rikki, then 17, shared a presentation on the dangers of kids exposing their personal information online, I was relieved to know our high schooler had a handle on this tricky terrain.

A few weeks later, on a whim, I logged on to my MySpace account, searched for Rikki, found her MySpace page, and then clicked on her friend Kristen's picture, which brought us to Kristen's page. There we could see that Rikki had posted, "Call me now!!!" Our home number followed — for Kristen and potentially the site's then 90 million other users to see, since Kristen had not made her page private. When we asked Rikki about it, she sheepishly admitted to having made an impulsive mistake and quickly asked Kristen to delete the post before the information could conceivably be used by stalkers, pranksters, or identity thieves.

Social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are incredibly popular with teens — recent surveys report that 71 percent of teens and 34 percent of 11- and 12-year-olds have a profile on a social-networking site (even though kids under 13 are not officially allowed on either site). Unfortunately, even the smartest kids — kids like Rikki, who know that you're not supposed to post private information online — make dumb mistakes on these sites, exposing themselves not just to predators and creeps, but also to bullying, identity theft, and other potentially negative consequences at school and, later on, in their work lives.

While it may be tempting to simply ban your child from using social-networking sites, a better strategy is to work with him to help him make smarter decisions online, says Monica Vila, cofounder of theonlinemom.com, a Web site devoted to educating parents about how to help kids use technology responsibly. (Teens whose parents have talked to them "a lot" about Internet safety are much less likely to take risks online, according to a Cox Communications survey.) Even if you are not on a social-networking site, or you have limited online skills, you can help your child avoid five of the most common flubs:

Mistake 1: Broadcasting Personal Info to the Entire Internet

Social-networking sites can provide a safe place for kids to exchange messages and connect with friends. But if your child's profile isn't set up so that only trusted friends can see the content, it's possible that everything he posts may be seen by anyone who's online. "About six months ago, I was contacted on Facebook by a guy in his 20s or 30s who had the same last name as me," says Courtney Marinak, 18, a recent high school grad from Jupiter, FL. "He said that we were related, and he was able to determine which one of his uncles was my father and even tell me what my sister's name was, all from information that was pieced together from my Facebook account. It turned out that he was legitimately related to me, but it was still scary having a stranger know so much about me."

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