How parents can protect their kids online

With teens flocking to social media sites to express themselves and connect with friends out of school, some are learning all too well the dangers of letting it all hang out. Rochester High School in Springfield, IL, suspended some students from athletics and other extracurricular activities after they posted on Facebook pictures of themselves underage drinking.

Even President Barack Obama expressed concerns that teens were not doing enough to protect their privacy. In a meeting with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, VA last September, he answered a question about how to become president with, "Well, let me give you some very practical tips. First of all, I want everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook, because in the YouTube age, whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life."

He continued, "And when you're young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff. And I've been hearing a lot about young people who -- you know, they're posting stuff on Facebook, and then suddenly they go apply for a job and somebody has done a search."

To help parents and teens wisely navigate social media, Michael P. Clark, co-founder of SafetyWeb, offers five tips in an interview with WalletPop:

Talk first
Before you let your child get on the computer, talk to him about online etiquette. Trash talking a friend? Not appropriate. Congratulatory comments about a pal's win? Appropriate. It's important that he knows what he can and can't do because it could come back to haunt him.

By having the lines of communication open at the very beginning, it also makes it easier to talk about the perils of new sites like Chatroulette when you learn about them.

Be upfront about privacy
While you don't want to break your child's trust and invade her personal life, be honest about what you need to know to be comfortable about her usage. It's no different than asking where she's going, with whom and for how long when she's heading out the door, said Clark. So ask where she has accounts. Occasionally look over her shoulder as she digitally converses with friends. If you do this from the onset, "there is no expectation of privacy," he said.

This keeps things from getting adversarial. So when she does run into trouble, you stand a better chance of her turning to you for help.

Establish the right settings

As he sets up his account at YouTube or Facebook, help him make it as private as possible. After all, teens will be teens. But you don't want his mistakes to be known throughout the world. Especially when more and more colleges and employers are vetting candidates with online searches.

SafetyWeb had to help one client to get her daughter's video removed from several sites that had copied it from her daughter's Facebook page. The video "was teenage girls having fun that seemed very innocent but was interpreted in a sexual way," explained Clark. "A site can't take your word to remove someone else's content. But you give the right reasons, represent yourself appropriately and document the reasons why it be removed, then it's very easy. We would help parents intercede and act on their behalf."

Always be on the lookout
It's great that your child keeps you abreast of what's going on in his life. But with so much of his social life taking place in front of the keyboard, keep vigilant for sudden changes in behavior. Has he started updating his status 20 times a day instead of two? What type of music or photo is he uploading? If there are changes, chances are something big is happening in his life.
Hit the screen
Just as you Google yourself to see if your privacy has been protected, you should do the same for your child. Unfortunately, given the direction social media is going these days, the default setting is less privacy, not more. "Sites make money when people come visit the pages," said Clark. "So exposing more content to Search Engine Optimization, so people can discover it is the nature of what is going to happen in these sites."

If you need extra set of eyes, SafetyWeb monitors up to 80 sites and services, including MySpace and Twitter, and will alert you to when your child opens a new account, what she's posting publicly and what's being said about her publicly for $10 a month. The initial report is free.

SafetyWeb also offers primers on hot button issues like sexting and cyberbullying to further assist parents.

"We believe there will be a transition in safety security from how to protect this piece of plastic like the iPhone to how to protect the person," explained Clark. "Is it okay that my kid is posting his location on Foursquare? It's going to get increasingly complex. As a society, we have to address what puts us at harm and at risk."
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