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Top five ways to protect teens on social networks

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Any parent of a teenager will know just how hard it is to get their kids to share. But when it comes to social networking, chances are they may be over-sharing – and they don’t even know about it.

Do teens (and tweens) really know how to keep personal information safe on social networking sites? Do they know what the privacy risks are? Don’t be so sure, says Nazeer Suliman, consumer and online lead at Microsoft SA – recent research by online portal MSN has uncovered some troubling teen behaviours online.
“Case in point: 42% of teens ‘sometimes’ or ‘always’ accept social networking friend requests from strangers. Bad move: this doesn’t just potentially give dodgy characters access to personal information, such as home addresses and cell phone numbers, but could impact your child’s reputation,” says Suliman.
Destiny Man editor, writer and social media enthusiast Kojo Baffoe – a father himself – believes there’s no stopping the social media juggernaut. But when it comes to Facebook, MXit and other social networking sites, he says there should be clear rules in place to make sure teens are protecting their privacy:
* Talk to kids about privacy. “Nowadays, online privacy is like sex, drugs, or any basic issue with your kids: you have to keep the communication channels open,” says Baffoe. “Have honest discussions with your children about why it’s dangerous to let their information fall into the wrong hands.”
Tell children they don’t have to tell everything to the whole world – especially not physical addresses, phone numbers, or their location.
* Join their world. It’s simple, says Baffoe. Parents can use Facebook, or install MXit on their phones, by asking their kids to show them how to join.
“By going through the sign-up process together – and discussing your own privacy needs – you’ll have the perfect opportunity to talk with your teen about the concerns that you have for their privacy. Otherwise, ask your teen to help you adjust your privacy settings. This will give you a good sense of how ‘savvy’ they are.”
* "Friend" or "follow" teens – but don’t be a stalker! If kids know parents can see what they’re posting online, it may well make them more careful. But the fastest way to have a teen hide info from a parent, or “unfriend” them online, is to invade their digital space. In other words, don’t friend their friends – although friending their parents is quite acceptable.
* The Internet never forgets. “What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas – it gets posted on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter,” says Microsoft’s Suliman. “Anything your teen posts now can be visible years from now to teachers or potential employers – even if they deleted the original posts.” In other words: remind them that fun is fun, but today’s indiscretions could come back to haunt them later.
* Teach them to never friend strangers. This sounds obvious, but parents would be horrified to know how many teens accept random friend requests from people they don’t know.
They think they met them at some party, or they’re a friend of a friend, and they don’t want to appear rude. But letting a stranger into a social network gives these people access to personal information and opens a direct line of communication. A good rule of thumb: only accept friend or follow requests from individuals they have met in person.
Ultimately, social networking is like life itself: a little hands-on parenting isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“As parents, it’s our responsibility to keep a watchful eye for unsafe behaviours. Check in on your teen’s social networking activity unannounced from time to time, as you might do in any number of offline situations. It will keep them honest – and safe,” says Suliman.