Never heard of Friendster, Facebook or MySpace.com? Your teen has. And there’s a very strong likelihood he or she has a personal page on at least one of these social networking websites. After all, the popularity of such sites – especially the juggernaut MySpace.com – is growing at lightning speed.

Teens, college students and young adults are creating personal MySpace and Facebook pages as a way of sharing the details of their lives with classmates, acquaintances, friends and – whether they know it or not – complete strangers. In fact, not only is most of the information shared on these “social” pages highly personal; it’s also highly public. So public, in fact, that this apparently innocent activity can potentially put your child at risk in more ways than one.

Although MySpace, Friendster, Facebook and others try to limit registration on their sites (most specify users should be at least fourteen years of age), regulating overall use of the sites is otherwise next to impossible. And that means anyone – and we do mean anyone – can access the published pages.

It shouldn’t take you long to realize the implications of this kind of open access to web pages used by teens to details of their personal lives. From first and last names, home addresses, class schedules and cell phone numbers to lists of friends, personal (and often intimate) photographs and details of their day-to-day lives, personal pages on sites like MySpace literally tell all, making them a goldmine for adult predators.

Like most parents, you probably feel a little behind the curve when it comes to finding out about these sites, let alone understanding how widespread teen use of these sites really is. If that’s the case, it’s time to get caught up: while it would be nice to imagine that your teen is ‘safe’ from the perils of the cyberworld, the only thing it’s really safe to assume is that either directly or by default (i.e. a friend’s personal page), your child is already connected to at least one social networking website. And regardless of the inherent risks associated with making so many private details public, teen use of such sites is only going to increase.

The obvious question, then, is what you can do to make your teen’s cyber networking as safe as possible. They’re not foolproof, but the following common sense guidelines are a good place to start:

  1. Face reality. If you don’t recognize the risk, you can’t protect your child, so the first thing you need to do is investigate the sites for yourself. You don’t need to become a regular internet user yourself, but you do need to know now to navigate the web and you do need to stay on top of the sites and cyber-trends competing for (and getting) the attention of your teen.
  2. Get the inside scoop. Ask your child whether he has heard of MySpace or Facebook and whether or not he or any of his friends have a page on one or more of the sites. Make it clear that you’re not trying to pry, but that you are curious about how the sites work. Use your conversation as an opportunity to find out what kinds of information your child is posting online and how much she understands about just how public that information really is.
  3. Discuss the risks. Nothing beats a frank, open conversation about the very real dangers posed by publishing identifying and highly personal information like home addresses, cell phone numbers and photographs online. You obviously don’t want to scare your teen, but you do need to help him understand that this type of information doesn’t just create personal risk; it can also place family and friends at risk.
  4. Establish boundaries. Given the availability of internet access these days, even disabling your home internet service isn’t necessarily going to stop your teen from getting online. Instead, use this opportunity to help your teen become a responsible web user by working together to establish clear boundaries for use. Acknowledge his/her participation in MySpace and other sites, but be firm about the kind of information that he/she can acceptably make public. Remind your teen of the following do’s and don’ts for online posting:
    • Do keep personal information like home addresses and telephone numbers private at all times:
       do NOT share them online.

    • Don’t publicize your class or work schedule.
    • Do think twice before posting intimate photographs.
    • Don’t invite strangers to post comments or feedback on your personal site or to send you emails.
    • Do remember that anything and everything you post on your page can be seen by anyone with
       access to the worldwide web.

  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. You’ve heard it a million times but it’s true. There’s simply no substitute for constant, consistent communication between you and your teen. You might have to work at it, but the best way to make sure you know what’s happening in his/her life – both online and off – is through direct, one-on-one conversation.