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7 things you need to know to keep kids safe online

March 16, 2012 at 8:33 AM ET

By Dr. Michele Borba

In the past ten years, the amount of time our kids spend online daily has tripled; online screen time has become a regular part of even our younger kids' lives. (Four in ten  2- to 4-year olds and half of 5- to 8-year-olds now use smartphones, video iPods or iPads). Though there are clear benefits, the Internet also poses unique parenting challenges. Fortunately, there are clues that help us monitor our cyber-kids. These seven tips will help you know what to look and listen for – and  keep them safer online.

1. Tell kids you will be online and in charge

Explain to kids that you are responsible for their safety and well-being and what they post online represents your family.

What research says: When kids know their parents are monitoring their actions (online and off) they are less likely to engage in risky behavior. Studies also find that those parents who set clear Internet rules are more likely to have kids who adhere to them.

What parents can do: Tell your kids that you will be monitoring their online behavior. Just don’t tell when you will monitor, and how often. Monitoring factors and stealth power depends on your child’s age, social group, maturity and past record of responsibility.  

Tip: Use the “Walk By” rule: Emphasize that if at any time you walk by and see your child covering the screen, switching screens, closing programs, quickly turning off the computer, or not adhering to your family rules, pull the plug. End of argument.

Related: Laptop shooting dad explains what he was thinking

2. Learn kid Internet slang

Recognize that kids have their own lingo and abbreviations to warn friends that parents are in the room.

What research says: 95 percent of parents don’t know common chat terms that kids use to warn friends that their parents are in the room.

What parents can do: Learn and watch for slang abbreviations. Here are a few key terms:

P911:  Mom or Dad in room

PA: Parent alert

POS: Parents over shoulder

PIR: Parent in room

PAW: Parents are watching

1,2,3,4,5 (Typing the numerals 1 to 5): Parent reading the screen

3.  Be where your kids are online                                                                                              

You can’t monitor what you’re locked out of, so insist that you know all your kids’ accounts and passwords and then set up accounts for yourself as well. Your teen needs to know you are watching (which is monitoring not spying!).

What research says: A teen survey found 56 percent of teens on Facebook gave parents full profile access; but 58 percent of parents don’t have their own profiles on Facebook.

What parents can do: Get accounts for all social networking sites your child frequents. If your kids are on Twitter, you need to be; if your kids have an email account, you must; if they have a Facebook page, so do you. Tell your teen to tell her friends -- and their parents -- that you are monitoring.  (You’d be surprised how many teens and their parents appreciate that monitoring!)

Befriend each other. Ask your teen to allow you to become a friend on his or her account. Ask him to help create your page. (Hint: Do not post on your teen’s account without permission, which can be a big turn-off, and do not set up a page without your teen’s approval -- another big turnoff). 

4. Keep computers/phones/tablets in public spaces of your home    

You can’t monitor your child’s online activities in places you can’t see. Keep your computer in public places you can supervise such as the kitchen, family room, or living roomand remove Internet access from the bedroom. You can restrict Web access bycalling your carrier and ask how to block Internet access during key times you can’t supervise.

What research says: More than a quarter of teens say they have Internet access in their bedroom where parents cannot monitor and they say they continue to receive texts after lights out.

What parents can do: Set up a “Collect and Drop” space. Remove Internet access from your child’s bedroom. Have your kids and teen drop cell phones, keyboards, iPads or laptops in a designated basket each night -- out of the bedroom. Periodically review personal posts, texts, or emails. Just read enough so your teen knows you are checking. Watch your child’s reaction when you say: “It’s time to check.”

5. Check your child's virtual world

Find out your child’s “virtual persona” (which can be an eye-opener!) to ensure the page, avatar, email name and photos depict respect and may not later be something “regrettable” that could damage his or her reputation, job prospects or even college acceptance.  

What research says: 38 percent of parents have never seen their teen’s online profile

What parents can do: Ask your child (and friends) if they have a Web page and watch their reaction. Stuttering, stammering, changing subject are warning signs. Do ask your child to explain her choices (whether positive or negative it’s a fabulous opportunity to find out about your child’s identity). Check your child’s email address and profile periodically together to assure that it connotes respect. If not, suggest it be changed or removed.

Google your kids. “Google” your child’s name often, as well as setting alerts for your child’s contact information. The alerts will email you when any of the searched items are recognized and acts like an early warning system to spot ways your child’s personal information may be exposed to strangers online. At least once a month open up files that your kids have downloaded. At least once a week check the history of sites your child has frequented.

6. Know signs of cyberbullying   

If your child is cyber-bullied, he may not tell you due to shame or embarrassment. So know what behaviors to watch for that could indicate online safety issues.

What the research says: 49 percent of kids say they’ve been bullied at least once or twice during the school term, but only 32% of their parents believed them.

What parents can do: Watch for signs that your child may not feel safe online or is possibly engaging in inappropriate online behavior. Red flags include: child spends longer hours online and seems tense about it; suspicious phone calls, e-mails, and plain wrapped packages arrive at your home; your credit card statement lists suspicious purchases; child stops typing, covers the screen, hits delete, shuts down the computer when he knows you’re close; child suddenly stops using cell phone or email, web, social networking devices; child withdraws from friends or wants to avoid school; child is suddenly sullen or shows a marked change in personality or behavior.

7. Start early and keep talking about Internet safety

The crux of safety is communication so if there is a problem -- online or off -- your child will be more likely to talk to you about it. Today’s kids prefer texting over talking, which can cut into parent-kid communication: 11- to 14-year-olds now spend an average of 73 minutes a day texting; older teens texting habits are closer to two hours.

What the research says: A national study found that the harder kids think it is to talk to their parents about online issues, the greater the disagreement over technology, rules and online monitoring.

What parents can do: Use the 5-to-1 listening to talk ratio: Talk one minute and listen for five. Don’t just text: talk. And set up unplugged family zones (kitchen and dining room) to enhance family communication.

Fifty years of child development research shows while there are no guarantees, the best way to reduce risky kid behavior is to strengthen our relationships with our kids. Parents are their kids’ best firewall, so use your influence by monitoring your child both online and off.

Dr. Michele Borba is a TODAY contributor and author of "The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries." Follow her on twitter @micheleborba.

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