Street smarts. The really sharp kids always seem to have them. They know the rules: Don't talk to strangers. Get the lay of the land. Don't go into places you don't know by yourself. If things don't feel right, leave right away. Never be afraid to ask for help.
For some kids, street smarts make a difference between staying out of trouble and getting hurt. This maxim also holds true for kids who wander out onto the information highway, especially into chat and forum areas.
A study of the Internet in 1997 said that the main attraction on the Net for young people was the chance to socialize in chat areas and forums. So virtual street smarts can be just as important as the ones you teach your kids to use in other areas of their lives.
* "Don't talk to strangers!"
It's pretty hard to go into a chat area and not talk to strangers. But there are a few ways you can protect yourself. Pick a gender neutral sign-on, like tregan or boston98. Often online services will give you space to create a personal profile. My advice is to leave it blank until you feel very comfortable with the chat areas you're using. This is an especially good idea for young women. Never divulge your age, phone number, address, or gender in the group, or to an individual from the group, without telling your parents or a trusted older friend.
* Get the lay of the land.
In Web parlance, this is called lurking. It sounds ominous, but it's actually very smart. Lurking means spending some time "listening" before "talking" in a chat area. It gives you a better idea of who's worth talking to, and what's worth talking about. You might also find that a particular chat group isn't your scene.
* Don't go by yourself into places you don't know.
One for parents: When you get that new computer, and your kids are just salivating to get online, don't let them go online by themselves the first few times. Join them. Take a few trips with them. Talk to them about what can happen in chat areas. And stop by from time to time when they're on the computer. You'll be surprised how often they enjoy the company.
* If things don't feel right, leave right away.
It's important to let your kids know that the moment someone starts to ask questions that are a bit too personal or ones that make them uncomfortable, especially via e-mail, they should let you know right away. This is not normal and it's not really what chat areas are all about.
If the questioning persists, I suggest you contact your Internet service provider or ISP (the company that is providing your connection). A responsible ISP will deal with the situation immediately. If not, first contact the police, and then switch to a new ISP.
* Never be afraid to ask for help.
If you follow the ideas mentioned above, especially sitting down with your kids at the computer from time to time, you'll make their Internet experience a more enjoyable one. And they will come to you when they need help, both in terms of installing that cool new software, and when they're not feeling right about what's happening in a chat area.
* Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's electronic edition. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org