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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.

Mistake 2: Sharing Passwords

Two years ago, 15-year old Julia Pullman* shared her MySpace password with friends. A few weeks later, she got into an argument with her friends, who retaliated by logging on to her MySpace page, spreading rumors about her being promiscuous, and generally savaging her reputation. "They also posted nasty things about other students, as if in her voice," her mother says. "It was just brutal." Julia was shunned by her classmates and has not yet socially recovered from the incident. Now she skips lunch at school to avoid eating alone, and has deleted her MySpace page.

It's common for teens to share passwords, says Vila — sometimes because of peer pressure, sometimes simply for convenience. But once that happens, the friend can log on as your child — whether to play a prank, like changing a name or profile description (common among teens), or for more malicious purposes.

Talk to your child about the importance of not sharing passwords with anyone but you, under any circumstances (you can use Julia's story as a cautionary tale). Then keep an eye on her pages for clues that someone else has been tinkering with them. (It should be a nonnegotiable rule that you yourself have an account and are part of your child's friend network, says Vila.) And let her know that if she breaks the rules, there will be consequences.

Word to the wise: Vila suggests punishing your child offline — not allowing her to attend a friend's party, for example — rather than banning her from a social-networking site, which might simply drive her to create a new account under a different screen name. Worth noting: Remind your child that it's critical to pick a password someone can't easily guess; that's a key step in protecting her online privacy.

Mistake 3: Befriending Strangers

It doesn't matter how strict your child's privacy settings are if she voluntarily adds people she doesn't know to her friends list. Teens often make a sport of accumulating friends on Facebook or MySpace, because it makes them feel popular. "You hear kids bragging, 'I have 785 friends,'" says Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling at Garden School in Jackson Heights, NY. Scammers or predators can troll for such kids by sending out friend requests like spam, then using one child's network of friends to connect with others. Take the case of Katie Huntington, 17, of Oakland, CA, who describes herself as a cautious Facebook user. "I accepted one guy as a friend last year — we had lots of mutual friends," Katie says. "Then I checked his profile." He was an older man, and Katie saw many messages on his Facebook page from people asking, "Who are you?" Katie quickly deleted him from her account.

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