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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 3: Befriending Strangers continued...

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.

If your child is just getting started on a social-networking site, establish a rule that you must approve all friend requests, says Vila, "just like you would approve who she brings into your house." Also, friends should only be people your child knows personally. Then click around her friends list occasionally and, if someone looks out of place, ask about it.

Word to the wise: Remind even experienced social networkers to review their contacts regularly. Relationships shift dramatically at this age — last semester's BFF may be this semester's frenemy, and your child may want to bar certain "friends" from seeing her personal info.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Mistake 4: Baring Their Souls

Your average teen would never plaster the halls of her school with signs declaring whom she's got a huge crush on, how badly she flunked last week's algebra test, or what she really thinks about her uncle's drinking problem. Yet that's exactly what kids do when they open up and post about their personal lives online. "The meaning of 'friend' gets blurred when teens are on social networks," says Sohmer. "They share an intimacy of conversation that they would never have with those people in real life."

By broadcasting highly personal information, social-networking sites can magnify the usual teen and tween social dramas a hundredfold. "A cute boy in one of my classes started writing on my Facebook Wall, and I was so happy," says Emma Kincaid,* 14, a ninth grader from the New York City area. "The next day half of our grade knew that this boy and I were talking to each other because of the News Feed" — a Facebook feature where one's friends can get instantly updated on virtually one's every move on Facebook. Unfortunately for Emma, "half of our grade" included her crush's ex-girlfriend. "She screamed at me in front of the entire cafeteria," says Emma. "And for weeks afterward, she'd mock me and curse at me in the hallways."

Emphasize to your child that oversharing online can leave her open to bullying, ridicule, and social ostracism. "I tell my 15-year-old niece, anytime you put something on Facebook, it's like standing onstage in the school auditorium with a megaphone," says Vila; that's a message all kids should hear.

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