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Social networking online: how to safeguard your child's experience

Use these practical strategies to teach your child basic safety for online social interactions.

By Kristin Stanberry

In a previous article we described the risks and benefits of kids networking online — and specifically how this applies to children with learning disabilities (LD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD). In this article we will explain in greater detail how to safeguard your child's online experience by teaching him how to protect his personal information and identity from being exposed or exploited by others who find him via the Internet. You'll also learn about various technology tools that block, filter, and monitor your child's online activity — and guidelines for choosing those tools that best address your concerns.

Whatever approach you take, do your best to tailor it to the specific needs of your child and family. If your child has learning or attention issues, be mindful of any special supervision he may need, as outlined in our previous article.

Perhaps you can relate to the questions one mother posed: "How do we raise children to live in a world with social networking safely? When are they old enough to drive around in that world on their own? What tools do they need to cope with that world? How can we help them to be successful and safe in that world?"

The answers to these questions aren't simple. The best place to start, though, is to understand your role as a parent. Be confident in your ability to learn enough about technology and the Internet to prepare your child to navigate the online world safely and successfully. After all, you know your child better than anyone else and have been teaching him how to navigate life from the time he was born. This article will help you approach Internet education step-by-step.

Managing and monitoring your child's internet activity

Just as you have taught your child how to act in public — even when you're not with him — you'll want to teach him how to interact on the Internet. How he communicates, and how well he evaluates the trustworthiness and authenticity of other people, are key factors.

Here are some tips for teaching your child to interact safely online:

  • Make sure your child understands that people he meets online may not be what they seem. Explain how the nature of the Internet makes it easy for a person to portray himself as someone other than who he is in real life — and why this can be dangerous. A worrisome example is an adult who uses online connections to establish trust with a child as a way of encouraging the child to meet him in person. In different scenario, one child might pretend to be another child's friend online, only to bully him later.
  • Teach your child not to disclose information that is too personal. This, of course, includes the child's name, phone number, and address. Less obvious, but equally dangerous information to share includes his online password(s), school name and location, parties he will attend, and times when he's alone (e.g., walking to and from school, at home). Even photographs he posts online should not contain personally identifying clues (e.g., the name of his school in the background). It is especially important to help your child develop deliberate strategies to protect himself when he is engaged in fun, lively, direct interactions with other people online. A child needs to understand that even if he believes he is on a friend's personal blog, or posting to a message board intended only for his classmates, other people may still see his information.
  • Check out the privacy policy and terms of service for each website your child visits. Best practices dictate that a website's privacy policy should be available through a link on the website's homepage and at each area where personal information is collected from users. (The law actually requires this for all websites aimed at children under age 13.) Read the policy closely to learn the kinds of personal information being collected, how it will be used, and whether it will be passed on to third parties. If you find a website that doesn't post basic protections for children's personal information, ask for details about their information collection practices.
  • Keep the computer in the family room, kitchen, or living room - not in your child's bedroom. If your child knows you are observing him — or you could walk by at any time — he may be less tempted to engage in something risky or inappropriate online.
  • Discuss the rules for using the computer and post them nearby.
  • If you aren't comfortable with your child using the Internet at home when you're not there, find alternatives that you consider acceptable (e.g., arranging for your child to log onto the Internet at his school library).

For additional tips, see the resources listed with this article.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.