By Sharon Cindrich
Making rules and setting boundaries on technology is tough enough for parents - especially for parents of teenagers.
Social networks, text lingo and wireless connections that kids seem to navigate effortlessly can feel foreign and frustrating to parents. Aside from the challenges of traditional teen territory, technology's new frontier has now saddled parents with a whole new arena of concerns.
Feeling out of the loop? You're not alone. A little research, an open mind and a strong communication with your teen will help you connect with this new tech landscape - and your child. Start with answers to some tough questions - specific to teenagers and their tech habits.
Q: I'm upset about the recent court case where a mom was involved in faking a profile on MySpace that led to the suicide of a teenage girl. How can I talk to my kids about this?
A: Lori Drew, a Missouri mother, was involved in creating a fictitious profile of a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans and sending cruel messages to Megan Meier, a 13-year-old who lived nearby. When "Josh Evans" suddenly ended the relationship, Megan took her own life.
This is not the only case where cyberbullying has had a disasterous impact on the life of a teenager and you're smart to use this story as a launching pad for family conversations about cyberbullying, Internet safety and responsibility. Talking to teenages about hypothetical situations isn't nearly as powerful as discussing real life events. This case also reinforces the significant role parents play in modeling online behavior.
Media sound bites can be deceiving, so before you talk to your kids, read more about this case to better understand the details and facts (nytimes.com offers several good articles following the case). Then, use these talking points to get the conversation started with your child:
Cyberbullying is a serious problem. Spreading rumors, calling names and talking in a mean or hurtful way about someone else online is a serious problem among teens today - and can have serious consequences. Parents need to make sure teens understand bullying behavior won't be tolerated on or offline.
Social networking sites have rules. Rules and guidelines for online communities like MySpace are put in place for the safety of everyone and parents and teens should understand those rules before participating. Like many other sites, MySpace has an extensive safety tips section designed for parents, teens and educators.
Fake profiles are easy to set up. Even though the Meiers were monitoring Megan's online relationship with Josh Evans, they did not know it was a fraudulent profile until six weeks after Megan's death. Imposter profiles are difficult to identify and parents should remind teens that people are not always who they claim to be online.
Online relationships should be extensions of established connections. Teens put a lot of stock into the relationships they have with online buddies and networked friends, which is why they should be careful about connecting with friends and acquaintances they don't already know in real life.
Q I've heard that teens are gambling on the Internet. Isn't that illegal?
A. Gambling is indeed illegal for kids - every state prohibits minors from gambling. While most gambling sites require users to be a legal adult, a child can easily lie about their name and age to meet the requirements and use a parent's credit card to participate in online gambling.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, it's easy for kids to access gambling sites online. Some of the most popular non-gambling Web sites carry tempting advertisements that link directly to gambling venues.
A family conversation on the subject is the best way to educate your teen on the following dangers of online gambling.
No payoff. Online gambling businesses make more money than they pay out. Even if a teenager wins, most sites have very stringent payout verification policies and are not required to pay out winnings to a minor.
Credit ratings. If kids rack up debt online, they could hurt their credit rating - or a parent's rating, if they use a parent's credit card. Bad credit can count against anyone buying a car, getting a student loan or even getting a job.
Addictive behavior. Gambling is addictive. Watch for signs that teens are sneaky about online activities, accessing the Web at night or spending lots of time online alone. Gambling in social isolation and using credit to gamble may be risk factors for developing gambling problems.
Q: My 13-year-old son shows no interest in joining Facebook. Is this unusual?
A: In general, many teens become interested in Facebook around this age because they are permitted by the site to join at age 13 - earlier than many other social networks. This does not mean they are required to join, and many don't for a variety of reasons - parental rules, disinterest or participation in other activities online.
If you're concerned, talk to your son about his decision and consider whether any of these are deciding factors.
The difference between girls and boys. Girls tend to be more social online and studies show that older teenage girls are much more likely to participate in a social network than boys of any age. Older teenage boys, however, are more likely to flirt and meet new friends online than their gal counterparts. Your son might not be interested yet, but prepare to have a talk about safety and privacy later on.
Networked in other places. Facebook is a popular hangout for teens, but it's not the only social network where kids connect. MySpace, Bebo, and Ning are other spots your teen might be finding friends, sharing photos or posting thoughts.
Networked in other ways. Your son might not be on a traditional social network, like Facebook, however many sites have opportunities to network through games, video uploading and fan club sites. YouTube offers an opportunity to create a profile and gather comments on video posts. Runescape is a video game that allows members to play and network through the game.
On Facebook, but off your radar. There is a chance that your child is participating on Facebook, and you don't know it. Kids can create an account for free and set it up anywhere. If your teenager senses that you may be uncomfortable about his participation or just want to keep you out of his business, he might be logging on when you're not over his shoulder.
Avoiding something bigger. If your son is adamant about not joining or seems agitated, nervous or upset when you bring up the subject, you may want to dig deeper and see if there is something other than general disinterest preventing him from participating.
With teenagers, things can change overnight. As long as you feel your son is enjoying social connections somewhere - at school, through a scout troop or on a sports team - you need not worry. When your son discovers that his other friends are on a social network, chances are he will eventually join in and you'll need to arm him with some guidance on staying safe and appropriate.
Q: I received a letter from my daughter's principal informing me that threats were being made against the high school on a Facebook profile set up by an unknown source. I'm scared - what should I do?
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