I will freely admit that I am new to these issues of Internet safety, too, since my oldest is only 12 years old. I am naturally a paranoid person so when my kid asked for Gmail accounts and cell phones, I knew I had to figure out my policies and fast. My dad friend, Joel, gave me the most logical advice having gone through this with his own girls who are older than mine. He also worked for Virgin Mobile in marketing so he had access to cool technology and insight into what the future may bring.
His attitude was this: "You need to teach your kids about being safe on the Internet, specifically when to come to Daddy for help. But don't avoid technology because 1) it will isolate your kids from their peers, and 2) technology is the future and I want my kids to be comfortable in this world."
If you think about things like “Stranger Danger”, the same rules apply. It's not realistic that you can shield your children from strangers, so to keep them safe they need to recognize danger and know what to do when they feel unsafe. Our school district has a Stranger Danger program in place that trains kids from Kindergarten onward annually on what to do in different scenarios. My kids get these principles reinforced through karate to the point that PickyKidPix is rather blasé about the pinky finger pull off move and the knee to groin move. "It's obvious," she says. "You grab their pinky finger back and try to break it. Then you kick to the groin. Assuming you can't run away first."
We haven't had any child abductions in our town (knock on wood!), but there are attempts each year that fail because kids in our town are well-trained. No going into cars even with adults you know unless your mom or dad told you before hand. No leaving with strangers that claim your mom or dad sent them due to a family emergency.
The Internet -- Facebook, Gmail, Boxx, video chat, Skype, and all the new iterations that seem to come out daily -- is no different from the outside world. Except, perhaps regarding anonymity, lying about identity (adults pretending to be kids and vice versa), and the threats that come from being able to communicate with a false identity like bullying or worse. Ugh!
I think the biggest threat is Facebook. The set up is complicated and an adult, let alone a child, may inadvertently reveal too much information. I would start with reading A Parent's Guide to Facebook which lays out Social Media safety in a step by step way. I squirreled away as I am a digital hoarder of information when I ran across this a few years ago knowing that I'll need this.
THE PRIVACY SETTINGS ARE REALLY IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND. SET THIS UP AND THEN EXPLAIN TO YOUR CHILD WHY YOU DID IT THIS WAY AND WHAT THE DANGER IS TO THEM.
After you do this, there should also be a frank discussion on what you will and will not allow your kids to do online. A verbal contract. Mine is this: you can talk to your friends online whether that is Skype, texting, emailing, and those apps that emulate a chatroom like Boxx. By friends, I mean it must be a person you have met FACE-TO-FACE, that LIVES IN OUR TOWN, that YOU DO PLAY DATES with. If you don't know the person this way, I MUST KNOW. Breaking this rule means losing your cell phone and other Internet privileges for a very long time.
Then it comes down to trust. Eavesdropping is also good and can't be avoided, say, when you are all in the car driving about. Younger siblings are also a great source of fairly reliable information and are easy to bribe. Not having a computer in their bedroom also makes it easy to be omnipresent. But seriously, we do talk about this issue, I would say on a quarterly basis or whenever I get a hair up my a... um, nose.
I would also monitor changes in personality which, for a tween, particularly a girl tween is frequent and widely variant anyway. Cranky-hating-your-parents behavior is par for the course. I would really get concerned if your tween becomes isolated and seems cut off from friends. If there is excessive screen time, I would also suss it out. Working on your music or soccer blog is fine for Music Lovers, like my oldest. But excessive screen time without an explanation is worth investigating.
1) Understand social media yourself in order to know how it works and where the dangers lie. Be sure to read A Parent's Guide to Facebook for setting up your child's account. Don't worry, this knowledge transfers to most other social media so it's time well spent.
2) Have clear rules that you and your child discuss and agree to. Make it easy for your child to come to you with problems by focusing on solutions to real issues that arise and not hypothetical situations.
3) Stay alert and pay attention to clues that your child throws off on a daily basis. Mood swings, isolation from friends, and excessive time online are all things to carefully monitor.
How about you? What is your advice? We are all in this new world together and it helps to band together!
Pragmatic Mom is trying to figure out Facebook herself and luckily none of her kids are on it yet. They are, however, texting like champion thumb wrestlers, using apps that turn their iPod touches into closed chat rooms, texting, emailing, and Skyping like social media mavens. Her youngest is the most proficient with the iPhone too which scares her tremendously. She lives in a very small house along with her dog and husband so there is very little privacy. Having just 1 full bathroom will do that to you! She hopes to see you on Social Media but will freak out once her kids start tweeting her. She blogs excessively on children's books and young adult literature and finds that when she blogs on education or parenting that kidlit sneaks in. It's just like that for her.