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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.

Staying safe on social networks

In recent conversations about social networking, we have been encouraged by the number of moms that are saying no to Facebook accounts for kids under the age of 13. There appears to be better awareness of Facebook's own rules that prohibit such accounts and, perhaps through increased Facebook use by parents themselves, a better understanding of what a Facebook account entails.

However, it is something that all parents of tweens should be aware of. Just because your child isn't asking whether he or she can join Facebook, it doesn't mean they're not interested. In fact, a lack of interest from a well-liked, outgoing tween might be hiding an unwelcome truth: they already have an account!

If you're not sure, take the time to register yourself and search for your child or some of his or her friends. It's not about catching them out; it's about making sure they're not posting anything inappropriate or connecting with people they shouldn't be connecting with.

However, with the popularity of Facebook – over 100 million users in the U.S. alone – we found another worrying trend among parents: the assumption that once their child turns 13, they are Facebook experts and can be left to their own devices.

To start with, there is nothing magical about the age of 13. Facebook, MySpace, and other online sites like YouTube, discourage under-13s for one simple reason – by law they would be required to ask for parental consent before collecting any data. It's not that kids are smarter or somehow better able to protect themselves online once they reach that age; it's merely the cut-off under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

So check on your under-13s but also keep a watchful eye over children that have properly joined but are just as likely to be lost in a sea of strange posts, "friend" requests from people they don't know, and inappropriate fan pages.

A few weeks ago, we posted some tips for new Facebook parents. Here are some other suggestions for starting your kids off on the right social networking path:

  • Explain the difference between sharing and oversharing. While social networking is about sharing photos, thoughts and experiences, explain to your kids that they should never share personal information such as phone numbers, home or school addresses, passwords, or Social Security numbers.
  • Talk to your child about inappropriate behaviour. This covers both images and language. Stress the fact that while you may be able to delete posts, you can never fully take them back.
  • Set strict privacy settings. Social networking sites let users determine who they want to share information with. Talk to your child about restricting access to his or her profile to just friends or users in safe networks such as their school, clubs or church groups.
  • Keep the channels of communication open. Let your child know that you are always ready to talk if they ever feel threatened, bullied or uncomfortable online.  

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