How to make peace with MySpace

AFTER WATCHING ONE episode of NBC Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator,” even a reasonable parent can succumb to full-on paranoia: The Internet, goes the investigative show’s underlying message, is a trolling ground for perverts—and your child could be the next victim. But unless you feel your child is in real danger (i.e., someone she doesn’t know is trying to arrange a meeting), installing Big Brother-style software, such as Net Nanny or WebWatcher, on the family’s computers can erode trust between parent and child, says Nancy Willard, executive director of the Eugene-based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use (www.csriu.org).

Such devices are also poor replacements for the guidance teens need on issues that inevitably arise when they chat and post profiles on social networking sites such as MySpace and Friendster. (According to a Pew Internet study, some 55 percent of online kids aged 12 to 17 use them.) An Internet monitor, for example, won’t explain to your teenage daughter why posting a picture of herself in a bikini on MySpace is inappropriate or what to do if someone asks her, “Are you a prude?”

No matter what situations your teen encounters online, freaking out about it is never a good idea. “If they do get into trouble, whether the problem is cyberbullying (in which kids harass others online) or sexual solicitation by a stranger, they will not come to you if they think you will overreact, blame them and ultimately take their Internet privileges away,” says Willard. And that’s the last thing you want. Here are some MySpace ground rules that Willard sets for her teens, modified from her book Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens. —Jill Davis

1. Do not let your teenager use MySpace until you are ready to discuss what she should do if she encounters sexual imagery or sexual predators.

2. Before she joins MySpace, make your child understand that information posted is public and permanent—even if a website’s privacy controls are enabled. Posting personal information such as addresses, reputation-damaging material and private information about other people is never appropriate.

3. Tell your teen that you will check her MySpace page on occasion (it’s public, after all), but don’t take the tone of an officer. Tell her that you’re interested in her online life just as you’re interested in her school life.

4. Employ “the friend rule.” Every friend your child accepts on MySpace should be a friend known to her or a friend of a friend. “That way, if there is a problem, you can track it down to an actual person,” Willard says.

5. Create your own MySpace profile and communicate with your child about soccer games and scheduling through e-mail. Get other parents to join, as well. Information sharing need not be the purview of your progeny alone.