How to keep your teen safe on the Internet

Talking about the consequences of posting pictures or phone numbers on Facebook, rather than banning the technology entirely, is the best way to help teens use the Internet safely, a new consumer protection guide from the Federal Trade Commission says.

For parents who worried about the potential dangers in new technology, and are unsure how to help their kids navigate a wireless world safely, there may be comfort in the basic message from a new guide from the Federal Trade Commission: Talk to your kids.

Ultimately, simply addressing these issues with your kids – and emphasizing that the basic rules that guide communications offline are the same ones that should apply to communication online – is what’s important, says Nat Wood, an assistant director in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

“The reach of modern communication technology means it can be really hard to step away from a mistake, but the principals of communicating in a civil way are the same online and off,” says Mr. Wood, who worked on the FTC guide, known as Net Cetera. “In a lot of ways, this makes it easier on parents.”

Still, the combination of typical teenage poor judgment with the far reach of today’s technology haunts many parents, who envision their teenagers being harassed by peers, stalked by a sexual predator, or answering questions from a potential boss or college admissions officer about the embarrassing photos they posted to their Facebook page.

Kids' poor judgment

Valerie, a mother in North Dakota who prefers not to use her last name because of privacy concerns, was surprised when her 16-year-old daughter’s cell phone started registering a lot of odd numbers. She went onto Michelle’s MySpace page – available to anyone – and discovered she’d posted her number, and many other private details, along with the message, “I’m bored, text me.”

“I think we fell down on the job by not being more cautious and watching more,” says Valerie, who talked to Michelle and showed her how much personal data came up simply through googling her phone number. “She nearly had a heart attack,” says Valerie. “It was a huge wake-up call when she saw how much was out there about her.”

Michelle and her parents worked together to come up with some acceptable guidelines – don’t share passwords, don’t post questionable photos or sensitive information such as phone numbers or hometown, don’t list your age.

Valerie and her husband also made a rule that the family laptop can’t be taken into the kids’ bedrooms.

That story is a fairly typical one, internet-safety experts say: Kids don’t mean to create problems, but often don’t have the best judgment and don’t think about the potential consequences.

But reacting too harshly – particularly by denying access to technology or using filters – is unlikely to work, and also denies the many positive aspects of new technology to increasingly-connected teenagers, they add.

“Teens whose parents are actively and positively involved in what their children are doing, both online and in the real world, are the ones who engage in less risky behavior online,” says Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for the Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet.

Cyber-predators not the main threat

She also cautions parents against being too paranoid. The cyber-predator threat that was hyped in much of the past decade is exceedingly rare, she notes. The biggest dangers kids face online are from peers who misuse information or harass others, or from their own poor judgment in posting images that later reach the wrong people.

“The entire conversation with young people has to be focused on ‘What are the potential harmful consequences?’” Ms. Willard says. “It’s not rule-based, it’s consequence-based.”

Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University in Dominguez Hills and author of “Me, MySpace and I,” agrees, and says that a lot of the issues today come from parents who are happy to let their kids be occupied by technology but never actively talk about it with them.

Talking to kids proactively – perhaps using a news story to raise the issue – is key, says Professor Rosen. “They don’t have the best decision-making abilities, and they’re just kids,” he says.

Those approaches are also emphasized in the FTC guide, which provides a glossary of terms and explicit information about cyber-bullying, sexting, file sharing, and other potential sources of problems. The guide also points to the positive elements of kids’ online communication and advises parents to start discussions young and keep communication channels open.

Net Cetera, the guide, “is value-neutral and caters neither to the ‘left’ nor the ‘right,’ but it encourages parents to communicate their own values to their kids,” Jon Leibowitz, the FTC chairman, said Wednesday in releasing the guide. “When parents are up front about their values and how they apply in the online world, kids will make more thoughtful decisions when they face tricky situations.”


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