By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: July 17, 2006 1:50 PM PDT
News of kids on MySpace.com falling prey to after-school stalkers or creepy marriage offers has given many parents the chills about their own child's activities online.
As a result, questions like "How can I keep my child from MySpace altogether?" have become common among concerned parents. But like stopping any other teen fad, that option is a dicey proposition.
To answer some of the more common questions about social networks and blog safety, CNET News.com talked to an expert. Larry Magid launched the site Blogsafety, a social network for parents, with partner Anne Collier, and he authored the forthcoming book "MySpace Unraveled: What It Is and How to Use It Safely," which will hit bookstores Aug. 2.
Should parents be worried about kids who keep blogs and profiles on MySpace or other social networks? If so, what are the legitimate things to think about?
In most cases, kids are perfectly safe maintaining a profile on MySpace or another social network. Parents shouldn't worry so much as take the time to talk with kids about how they're using MySpace and other social networks, he said. Ideally, parents should review kids' profiles for inappropriate information or material.
"It's like riding a bike or using a kitchen knife: When used properly, it's terrific; but if used carelessly or maliciously, there could be problems," Magid said.
The U.S. Department of Justice, in a report called Highlights of the Youth Internet Safety Survey, has estimated that one in five children between the ages of 10 and 17 years old receives unwanted sexual advances online. Breaking that down, at least half of those solicitations originate from other teens and are not aggressive, meaning they aren't urging the child to meet in person. Magid said those added details can put the risk in perspective: The vast majority of kids online will go about their business unharmed.
Does material a child posts to a blog or social network stay on the Internet forever? If so, what can parents do about it?
Anything that's posted online can be copied, stored, forwarded, saved and in some cases, revealed by search engines even if it has been deleted. There is even a Web site called Archive.org whose "Waybackmachine" stores old Web pages. Of course, people can request that Archive.org remove material from its site, but that's just one site. The bottom line is that once something goes online, it's out there to be copied and forwarded, and in some cases, it might be impossible to take back, according to Magid.
How can I make my kid's MySpace profile private?
Log in to MySpace and go to your child's home page. In the Hello box (to the right of the photo), click Account Settings. Scroll down to Privacy Settings and click the Change Settings link. Scroll down to the bottom of the list of options and, under Who Can View My Profile, place a check mark next to My Friends Only.
Can parents force MySpace or another social network to ban a child from the network?
The short answer is no. According to legal experts, social networks are not bound by law to remove a child's profile unless that child is underage. In the case of MySpace, that means that teens 14 years and older can participate in the network with impunity, as long as they respect the company's terms and conditions. That said, some states are crafting laws that would give adults rights over a child's content, according to legal experts.
Magid added that if parents want their child's profile removed, they should send an e-mail to DeleteAccount@MySpace.com to ask that the profile be deleted. It's important to include the exact URL of the profile so MySpace can find it. MySpace says parents will get an e-mail with a number to call to discuss their case.
What kinds of kids are vulnerable on the Internet?
Kids who are feeling lonely or alienated or who try to be perfect in their own lives tend to let their guard down online, according to Magid. Compliant children also can be particularly susceptible to predators who will invest time "grooming" kids, or finding details like age or hobbies that can be used as conversation starters and tools for friendship.
"It's the good kids you have to worry about, too," said Magid. "Kids will be lured by a predator who grooms them over time, and almost always the child is a compliant child."
What are signals parents should watch out for?
Parents should be alert to kids who are very secretive about their Internet use or who tend to be obsessive about late nights online. Also, socially withdrawn kids, without many friends, can tend to be vulnerable if parents find they're retreating into the Internet, rather than using it as a tool to make outside friends. These are children who may divulge too much information and fall victim to a predator.
Magid recommends that families hook up the computer in a common area of the house, so that Internet use becomes a public activity.
When should parents consider software-filtering tools to block unsavory Web sites?
Parents with young children may want to consider using filtering tools so that kids don't run into pornographic material online. But filtering tools could cause kids older than 14 years old to rebel or look for Internet freedoms elsewhere. "If you try to repress expression, then you will drive it underground," Magid said.
What are the upsides to social networks?
Using the Internet and social networks can have an enormous positive impact on self-esteem for kids, Magid said. The activity can help kids express themselves through music, writing and illustration, and help them hone social skills or professional skills for the future. Magid also believes that social networks will help foster more lifelong friendships, given that kids from grade and high school can keep in touch more easily via instant chat and other technologies.
Send insights or tips on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit down with children when they're online, and make sure they visit only Web sites that are parent-approved. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends because to them, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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