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It's the coolest hangout space for teens-but parents might be surprised at what their kids do there. Here's how to help keep them safe online To join the club, you answer a few questions, upload a photo or two, and voila, you've got a MySpace profile. Although the site started out as a place for musicians and artists to connect with one another, it has gradually morphed into an online hot spot, and its popularity now easily dwarfs that of others of its kind. The site currently has more than 100 million profiles, with 230,000 new members signing up every day. In August, MySpace accounted for 81 percent of visitors to leading social-networking sites, according to Hitwise, a market-research company. Facebook, a site that's popular with college students, came in a distant second, receiving just 7.3 percent of social-networking traffic. Demonstrating how important these sites are to users, Facebook received scores of angry E-mails last week when it changed some of its features.
Get involved. Among the many millions of people visiting these sites, some, indeed, are sexual predators, and there have been some highly publicized accounts of teenagers who've been lured into offline meetings at which they've been assaulted. Parents, understandably, are traumatized by such stories. By focusing so intently on protecting their kids from stalkers, however, parents have overlooked other less sensational but important aspects of their kids' online experiences. How teens interact with their peers in cyberspace, for example, and how they present themselves through images and words may not be life-or-death decisions, but they can have a serious impact on their lives offline. As the new school year begins, parents have an opportunity to take an interest and get involved in their kids' online experiences, if they haven't done so already.
Even though social-networking sites, instant messaging, chat rooms, E-mail, and the like may not seem to qualify as social gathering spots to parents, for teens, they function very much like the malls and burger joints of earlier eras. They're where young people go to hang out, gossip, posture, dare, and generally figure out how the world works. "What you see is all the behaviors you should recognize from your own teenage years," says Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley who has studied children's social practices online. "The difference is that now it's less physical and more word-based."
It's also available 24-7. A teenager might check MySpace from home before heading off to school to see if anyone added a comment to his page overnight. Many schools block social-networking sites, but after school, teens often spend hours on them. They'll check their own profiles to see what comments friends may have posted on them, which may be public and available for all the world to read. They may write a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs in their blogs. They'll probably also instant message, or IM, friends to recap the day's events or make plans, upload new photos, or change the music on their page. Then they'll visit their friends' pages to see if they've uploaded any new photos or videos, read new comments from other friends, and post comments of their own. "People have their friends, and now they have the Internet, too," says Matt Zeitlin, a 16-year-old junior in Piedmont, Calif. "It's a more evolved way to communicate than a telephone or cellphone or IM." For some teens, keeping up with their friends online becomes almost an obsession. They compulsively check their messages and look to see who's remarking on their page throughout the day.
Parenting in this virtual world doesn't require a whole new set of skills, though a little technological savvy sure doesn't hurt. What it does require is a willingness to pay attention, ask a lot of questions, and set some rules and stick by them, even at the risk of making your kids mad at you-familiar parenting territory.
"Chicken." But too often that's not happening. Parents who would never allow their child to go to a party unless they knew that an adult would be present let their kids pilot themselves through the online world without any supervision whatsoever. A June survey of 267 pairs of teens and parents in the Los Angeles metropolitan area by a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills found that two thirds of parents had never talked with their teen about their MySpace use, and 38 percent of them had never seen their child's MySpace profile. "Parents are chicken," says Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, a nonprofit aimed at keeping kids safe online that has trained 450 teenagers in online safety and sends them out to speak to schools and other groups. "They don't understand the technology, so they're reluctant to get involved."
But this is not the time to give in to your inner technophobe. You may have never sent an instant message, uploaded a video, or written a blog, but you can help your kids develop the judgment to better protect their safety online and set standards that will help guide their behavior. This is especially important since legislation that recently passed the House of Representatives and is currently under consideration by the Senate would ban social-networking sites from schools and libraries, leaving parents as the only consistent adult arbiter of their children's day-to-day social-networking behavior.
The problem with the Internet isn't necessarily that sketchy strangers try to entice kids to meet them in person. Strangers approach children on terra firma as well. The problem is that online there are no physical cues to alert a teenage girl that the "boy" who's IMing her about a hot new band is actually a 45-year-old pedophile who's interested in sharing a lot more than his play-list.
One of the ways to protect your child is to make sure his or her profile is stripped of identifying details, come-hither photos, and the sort of "I'm lonely" comments that are a red flag for predators (box, below). Another important step is to tackle the issue of making friends online head-on.
Some parents set rules about MySpace friends: MySpace is where you gab with friends you already have, not make new ones. Period. At a minimum, "a parent needs to have a chat with their child about risks," says Larry Magid, coauthor of the new book MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking. "People may not be who they say they are; they may be misrepresenting their motives." The wealth of detailed personal information people post online makes social-networking sites fertile ground for predators. While the material may seem innocuous-a home state or a list of favorite TV shows-a predator can use it to his advantage. "The sites help offenders find targets that are close by," says Brad Russ, the former police chief in Portsmouth, N.H., and director of the Internet Crimes Against Children Training and Technical Assistance Program, a Department of Justice effort to help local law enforcement agencies better respond to online sexual exploitation. "One way to break the ice with a child is to become knowledgeable about something that child likes to do," says Russ. Once a child is comfortable E-mailing or IMing the new confidant about, say, who's a favorite on American Idol, conversation easily shifts to more personal topics. Eventually, it won't seem strange to the child if the new pal suggests a face-to-face meeting.
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