Eighty-two percent of children between the ages of 14 and 17 use social networks, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.  A generation ago, parents could monitor their children’s’ social activity much more easily.  Today, with the proliferation of social networks such as Facebook, Bebo, Myspace and Formspring and the ubiquity of computers and smartphones, your kids could be sitting right in the room with you having completely inappropriate conversations with their friends or with people you don’t even know.  Moreover, these social networks intrude on time that would otherwise be spent on homework or studying.

So, what’s a parent to do?  We don’t have to be hapless Luddites in the face of this technological onslaught. GCP has gathered a few tips and tools to help you stay on top of your child’s digital presence.

Computer Access

While it may not be practical or effective to insist that your children do all of their work on a computer in a common area, you can insist that they use their devices in the open (not behind closed bedroom doors) and allow you access at any time.

Social Networking Sites

Despite the fact that Facebook and other social networking sites have a minimum user age of 13, many kids flout this by lying about their age, and many parents permit them to. Don’t give in to that temptation.  That age requirement is a direct response to federal laws that exist to protect children from inappropriate web content.  Additionally, parents send a dangerously mixed message to their children about honesty if they tell them that it is okay to pose online as being older than they are.

Before your child sets up an account on a social network, have a conversation with him about privacy and his digital footprint. Explain that once something is online it never goes away.  Their digital information can (and is likely to) be accessed by school admissions officers, employers, and their friends’ parents.  Strongly suggest that they only “friend” people that they know personally, rather than friends of friends or people who initiate friend requests.  Stress that they should not post personal information such as their address or bank account numbers.  Insist that they “friend” you AND give you their password, so that you can have complete access to their account.  Most importantly, monitor their web presence regularly.

Cyberbullying and Predators

We have all seen how adults can lose their inhibitions due to the anonymity of the Web. People will say things online that they would never have the courage or cruelty to say to someone in person.  That tendency is exacerbated by adolescence and social networks are an ideal forum for ganging up on another child away from adult supervision.  There have been countless stories in the news of children being tormented and even driven to suicide by cyberbullying.   As a parent, you have the responsibility to ensure that your child is neither the victim nor the perpetrator of such attacks. Talk with your children about cyberbullying. Tell them to come to you immediately if they are the object of any online taunts or teasing.  Advise them not to post insults, foul language or anything in their posts, including videos, that they wouldn’t want their grandmother to read or see. Let them know that they could be prosecuted for doing these things. It sounds extreme, but schools and parents are regularly involving the police in cases of extreme cyberbullying. If they have any doubts, just share this article with them.

In addition, adults posing as teenagers can establish online relationships with kids and lure them into meeting in person. This is why it is essential to regularly monitor your children’s online activity. Check your children’s social media sites and review their texts on a weekly basis. Randomly change the day so that your children don’t delete or bury information in an attempt to outsmart you.  When you’re monitoring, it’s critical to understand the shorthand that kids use online and in texting.  A list of common abbreviations used online or in texts can be found here: 20 Internet Acronyms Every Parent Should Know.  There are also a variety of tools that will filter and monitor your child’s computer surreptitiously.  The website www.comparitech.com has an excellent guide to protect children’s privacy online which you can find here.

Like it or not, we’re in a brave new world of technology which can be difficult to keep up with.  However, our parental responsibilities are the same in the virtual world as in the real world, to guide and protect our children and help them make responsible choices.