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Helping kids navigate social networking

Advancing technology has changed the Internet landscape dramatically in just a few short years, namely in the space of social media, and young children and teens are the fastest adopters of the new technologies. Technology-savvy or not, parents need to understand that information their children post to social networking sites can make them vulnerable to scams, cyber bullying and Internet predators. With children and teens actively engaging more and more every day, parents are encouraged to take the necessary steps to ensure their kids are safe online.

"Often it seems that children know more about technology than parents do," said Dan Welch, fatherhood and family specialist with the Colorado Department of Human Services. "What parents do know for sure, however, is that while the Internet can be a great learning resource for children, it can also present dangerous situations, especially in the case of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Parents need to be informed about the issues in order to help their children connect safely with others online.

"Laws such as the Child Online Protection Act and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act are in place to protect children and their private information when they do choose to engage in online activities. But even with such laws in place, children and teens need their parents or another parental figure to be aware and actively engaged in what they are doing online. Below are five important tips parents should know about safeguarding their children on the social web. Find these tips and many more, including a Parent's Guide to Facebook, from connectsafely.org.

--Be reasonable and try to set reasonable expectations. Pulling the plug on your child's favorite social media site is like pulling the plug on his or her social life. Instead of being protective, it can shut down communication and send kids "underground" where they're more at risk. It's too easy for them to set up free blogs and profiles from anywhere, including friends' houses or even a cell phone.

--Talk with your kids about how they use the services. They, not news reports or even experts, are the ones to consult about their social-web experience. Help them understand basic safety guidelines, such as protecting their privacy (including passwords), not harassing peers, never talking about sex with people they don't know, avoiding in-person meetings with people they "meet" online and taking care in what they post--because anything people put online can be grabbed, reworked and used against them.

--Support critical thinking and kind behavior, because no laws or parental-control software can protect better than a child developing good sense about safety and relationships. Research shows that kids who are aggressive and mean online toward peers or strangers are at greater risk of becoming victims themselves. So teach them to be good citizens and friends online as much as offline.

--Consider requiring Internet use in a high-traffic place in your home--not in kids' rooms--to help you stay aware of their online time. This way, you can encourage a balance between online time and their off-line academic, sports and social times. Know that there are also many ways kids can access the Internet away from home, including on many mobile phones and game players.

--Try to get your kids to share their profiles and blogs with you, but be aware that they can have multiple accounts on multiple sites. Use search engines and the search tools on social networking sites to search for your kids' full names, phone numbers and other identifying information. You're not invading their privacy if they're putting personal info in public "places" online. If their pages are private, that's a good thing, but it's even better if they share it with you.

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