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Health & Parenting

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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 continued...

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.

Most parents already worry that "stranger online" means "sexual predator." Of course, that's a serious and well-publicized concern — and one that the social-networking giants are increasingly addressing — but friending strangers also leaves your child vulnerable to unwanted offers of sales and services, not to mention identity theft. In the brief time Katie was friends with that unknown man, he could have downloaded her photos and recorded her birthday, and possibly other personal information, and used this info to open accounts in her name.

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