As social networking Internet sites like MySpace.com continue to grow in popularity, parents need to take steps to ensure their children's safety, experts said Thursday at a media briefing sponsored by the National Parent and Teachers Association (PTA).
While these sites do have some positive attributes, they can also be easily accessed by predators.
That's why parenting in the MySpace generation has its own set of unique challenges, says Douglas Levin, senior director of education policy for Cable in the Classroom, a Washington-based program designed to help schools take advantage of educational cable programming and technology.
"Social networking should not cause you to panic," he tells WebMD. "Make sure your kids know not to post personally identifying information -- including pictures and videos of themselves -- and not to meet anyone in person that they have only met online. And to let you know whenever they see something that makes them uncomfortable."
The good news is that 94 percent of parents or legal guardians polled have taken actions to ensure their kids’ safe use of the Internet, according to results of a new survey presented here. These actions include monitoring their children's online activity, setting time limits, talking to their children about safe usage, and installing software to block certain online activities.
The telephone survey included 374 adults aged 18 and over who are the parents or legal guardians of children aged 8 to 18; 90 percent of parents said they think they should have the responsibility of ensuring Internet safety.
But in today's day and age, kids may be more tech-savvy than their parents. Only one-third of parents polled think they are "very knowledgeable" when it comes to educating their children about how to use the Internet safely and responsibly.
The poll was commissioned by Cable in the Classroom and was conducted at the end of July.
Setting Ground Rules
"For teens and tweens, it's just important to set ground rules and it's also important that if kids do have a MySpace page or a page on one of the other social networking sites that parents go and look at it and monitor what their kids are doing online and who they are talking to," Levin tells WebMD. "Parents need make the Internet a safer place for kids by disabling things like instant messenger [IM] and chat [functions]."
Age matters, he says. "I think it is much easier to protect children who are preteen [but] really the kids who are engaging in the riskiest behaviors are those who are in their teens."
For the younger set, parental controls such as keeping computers in common areas of the home and installing software or filters to block inappropriate sites can make a big difference, he tells WebMD.
But these measures may not work for tech-savvy teens who can bypass filters and access the Internet from outside the home. "In this case, the best defense as a parent is to have frequent and open conversations with kids about the challenges of being online," he says.
"Schools really should be a resource for parents. And educators now know kids are connected a lot," he says. In the new survey, 71 percent of parents polled said they thought that schools should bear the responsibility for ensuring the safety of children online.
"The most important thing is to make sure that they understand what their child is putting on the net and that they monitor them as much as possible," adds Marc Harris, an Internet consultant in Santa Rosa, Calif., and the author of MySpace4parents.
"If your children don’t know how to make their web page private, you can see what it is they have posted," he explains. "If it is private, there is nothing a parent can do," he adds. But "if your child is savvy enough to make their page private, predators can't have access either without requesting that they become a 'friend,' so children have to understand that they should not make just anyone a 'friend.'"
These sites do have some benefits, he says. "The positive is it is great for kids to interface with peers and chat with people that have the same interests," he says. Harris did not attend the media briefing.
By Denise Mann, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: PTA Back-to-School Media Briefing, Aug. 10, 2006. Douglas Levin, senior director of education policy, Cable in the Classroom, Washington. Marc Harris, Internet consultant, Santa Rosa, Calif.; and author, MySpace4parents.