To keep kids safe, parents need to learn the technology and show interest in what kids are doing online, says Anne Collier, editor of NetFamilyNews.org and coauthor of MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking. "Right now, we're the tourists and our kids are the commuters," Collier says. "Adults see what tourists see -- the big, scary, new places. But that's not what kids see when they go online. They see their social life."
To take a snapshot of what's really going on in cyberspace, Better Homes and Gardens gathered an informal panel of wired kids and their parents. Check out these next slides to see what they had to say.
Looking Over Shoulders
If you want to know what your child is doing on the computer, just ask. "I like that my mom stops and asks to see what I'm doing at the computer because it shows me that she cares," says Alex, 16. "A lot of parents are clueless."
Just knowing that her family can check out her Facebook page is enough to keep Sara, 14, from posting inappropriate photos and comments. And Ilana's mom actually sits down and chats via instant messaging with her 14-year-old daughter's friends.
Other hints: Keep the computer in the family room, not your child's bedroom. Set rules for Internet use, including how many hours per day or week may be spent online, and what types of sites are prohibited and why.
"If you're concerned about MySpace or the Internet, tell us why. Talk about the dangers. But don't ban it outright," says Megan, 17. "The more restrictions you put on the computer, the more your kids will want to go online and find ways to do it."
Anne Collier agrees that a determined teen will find ways to work around restrictions. Kids can go online at a friend's house, in school, a library, or coffee shop. The home computer is the best place for your child to go online, however, because you can set limits and keep an eye on content.
Texting the Day Away
Kids spend a lot of time sending and receiving text messages, in and out of school, and using their cell phones and computers.
Samantha, 10, who's new to instant messaging, races indoors after school, turns on the computer, and chats with girlfriends, even though she just said goodbye to them. Maya, 17, opens instant messaging when she gets home from school and chats off and on, even while doing homework, until she goes to bed.
If you allow your child to have a cell phone with text-messaging, it's a good idea to set similar ground rules about use as you would with the home computer.
"The more kids interact with people they don't know, the more they risk putting themselves in danger," says Frank P. Dannahey, a detective in the youth division of the Rocky Hill Police Department in Connecticut and an expert on online predators. "I tell kids: Would you go to the mall and start talking to a stranger? Probably not. Same thing goes for online."
Kids who chat with strangers online sometimes don't get enough attention at home or from their peers, says Dannahey. Your best bet, he adds, is to talk to your child about strangers and point out headlines involving Internet predators to drive your point home.
Make sure your kids also understand that they must never publicly divulge critical personal information such as real name, address, and phone number. It's also important not to chat about or post anything that could reveal your whereabouts.
Bullies are Online, Too
More than 4 in 10 teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying in the past year, according to the National Crime Prevention Council and Harris Interactive. If it happens to your child, document the abuse by copying the offensive messages. Block the bully's access to your home computer through your Internet Service Provider (ISP), social networking site, or chat room moderator.
And empower your child. Encourage him to turn off technology or ignore nasty e-mails and text messages until the harassment cycle ends. Let him know that you understand how painful it must be. The anonymity and 24/7 access take bullying to a different level, says Susan M. Swearer, associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. "People will say things through technology that are much worse than they would say in person."