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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

IM & Chat Rooms

Instant messaging - as well as other venues for Internet "conversations," such as chat rooms - presents its own risks for your kids. And that means these technologies present still more challenges for you as a parent. Using them, your kids can instantly find themselves connected to someone who doesn't have their best interests at heart - whether it's a cyberbully, a thief, or a predator. Fortunately, as with everything else we've discussed, there are precautions you and your kids can take to reduce those risks:
  • Start with a "screen name" that won't personally identify you, isn't gender-specific, and isn't sexually provocative.
  • Set up your IM system so you're visible only to people you've put in your contact list.
  • Don't communicate with anyone you don't recognize. If a stranger asks to be added to your list of friends, contacts, or buddies, say no.
  • Don't share your screen name with strangers, and don’t allow it to be listed in public IM directories.
  • Don't provide any personal information to the people you're chatting with (just as you shouldn't send them personal information by email).
  • Don't send photos of yourself to people you don't know personally. Also, don't use your IM system's option to include a photo along with your name when you send a message. Instead of a photo, use a movie or cartoon character, or adopt an avatar!
  • Don't accept or open any pictures or other files you receive from someone you don't know personally in the "real" world. And don't connect to any Web address links a stranger sends you, either.
  • If you use IM on a public computer, make sure you turn off the feature that logs you in automatically. If you don’t, the next person who uses the computer can automatically log in as you.
  • Find out whether your anti-virus software is screening attachments in instant messages. If that feature is turned off, turn it on; if it isn’t available, consider getting anti-virus software that can screen those attachments.
  • Never meet anyone in person that you've met only through IM or in a chat room.
  • Just as you want to be treated nicely by the people you’re speaking with, treat them nicely, too: don't start online arguments ("flame wars"). Never insult anyone, and if someone insults you, don't respond: block them.
  • Be careful about displaying information about your status. For example, you don't want a thief to know you're "on vacation".
  • Be aware that if you (or your kids) use IM systems at work, your employers are legally permitted to read their messages.
  • Remember that once you send an instant message, your recipient can easily forward it to anyone else they wish. Don't write things you wouldn't want to be forwarded - and don't send images or videos you wouldn't want to be forwarded, either!
  • Finally, learn how to store copies of your instant messages, in case you ever need to work with the police to track a "bad guy" who's been conversing with you or your kids.

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