Internet Tips: Safeguard Your Reputation While Socially Networking

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Parenting, Please

Given the wide-open nature of the medium, what should parents do to provide protection and guidance for their MySpace-loving teens? Start with good communication. I offered general advice on how to talk to kids about online safety in last October's Internet Tips column. Explain your family's values and expectations regarding sexuality and violence online. If you can talk with your children about difficult subjects like sex--and especially if they feel comfortable talking about these topics with you--offering guidance in their online activities will be easier.

If you end up in a battle with your child over MySpace, forget about it--you've already lost. You can reject, forbid, and banish all you want, but a teen who is set on using MySpace will do so, regardless of whether you have a computer in the house.

If your child uses a computer at home, I recommend keeping it out in the open. You may also want to install some of the monitoring and filtering tools I described last October. It's up to you to decide what level of autonomy you want to offer your child online. At the hands-off extreme, you could simply cross your fingers and hope that everything works out. At the high-surveillance extreme, you could create your own MySpace account and use it to keep tabs on your child's page and friends (though you won't see any of the e-mail they send and receive). Razorcom's ad-supported MyspaceWatch monitors one MySpace profile of your choice for you; the service visits the monitored profile twice a day and sends you a report via e-mail detailing log-ins, changes, and as many as 25 friends. For $6 per month, MyspaceWatch Pro monitors up to five profiles and 100 friends four times a day.

In my judgment, this invasive level of monitoring is justified only if you have already tried just about everything else and are convinced your child's MySpace usage constitutes a serious problem. In our family, we were lucky--our son first asked us if he could have a MySpace account. We agreed, provided that he would allow us to monitor it occasionally (including a glance at his e-mail messages). The result of this arrangement is that we know who he's talking to and what kinds of conversations are going on. Because we live in a small town and are interested in his day-to-day activities, we already know most of his MySpace friends offline. This trust-but-verify system has reassured us that our son is using MySpace responsibly; and as a result, over time, we've been willing to relax our vigilance and give him a little more privacy.

At the very least, ask your child to use MySpace's privacy features (as described above) to block friendship requests from strangers and to exclude people who aren't friends from viewing his or her MySpace profile. Parents and children should browse the excellent "Don't Believe the Type" Web site created by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for tips and information on avoiding online predators. The FBI publication "A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety", which the agency says is based on information received from actual child victims and predator sting operations, is another good resource.

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