The internet is a 'place' where your children mix with others and share their lives. Just as in any other area of life, if you don't know what your children are doing, where they're going or who they're mixing with, you risk compromising their safety.
The 'grooming' of youngsters by paedophiles on the net remains rare, but it's important to be vigilant. An adult using a social networking site can become anyone he wants to be when he's online - a 15-year-old girl looking for mates with the same taste in music, for example.
Despite its lower profile, internet bullying occurs more frequently than grooming. Threats, harassment and psychological torment via email or in a virtual chatroom can have a devastating effect on a child.
So what can you do?
- Learn as much as possible about what your child does online. Ask him to show you the sites he visits and to tell you who he exchanges messages with. He may not reveal everything but it's a good start - at least he'll know you're interested. Make sure he knows there's often a minimum age for people subscribed to social networking sites (13 on Bebo and 14 on MySpace, for example).
- Explain to your child that he shouldn't give out personal information to people he meets on the internet. Stress that although he may think of them as friends, there's a risk (however small) that they're not who they say they are. Telling strangers his age, phone number, address - even his gender - could play into their hands. And he should never post a photograph of himself.
- Talk to other parents about the rules they have for their children. Your child may know not to post a picture of himself on a networking site, but that doesn't stop his friends posting group photos that include him.
- Be aware of how, when and where your child uses the net. This will help you to spot any significant changes - for example, if he spends much longer online than usual, or starts using the internet only away from home. This may well be nothing more than typical adolescent behaviour, but at least you'll be alert to other possibilities.
- Look out for changes that may signal your child is being bullied or abused. These can include loss of confidence, withdrawal from family life, anxiety or argumentativeness, insomnia or lack of concentration.
- Talk to your child about the type of site he may stumble across either accidentally or if curiosity gets the better of him. You may find it an uncomfortable topic (and he almost certainly will) but experts say it's much more sensible to discuss with your child the possibility that he'll encounter pornographic material on the internet. That way he should feel more able to turn to you if he feels things are getting out of hand - and he'll be much less vulnerable to abusers urging him to keep secrets.
- Consider installing parental control software on your computer that allows you to block access to certain types of website or to log your child's internet activity. It can also prevent email traffic from undesirable sources. More information is available from the Internet Content Rating Association.
- Check the history of sites your child has visited, and be explicit that you'll do this regularly. If the history has been deleted, ask him why.
- Speak to your internet service provider about its policy on chatrooms. Are they moderated (monitored constantly) by fully trained adults to minimise the risk of bullying or abuse? It's never a good idea to allow children on to unmoderated sites.
- Ask your child's school whether they teach pupils about internet safety.
Note: The www.american-schools.net site is provided for your general information only. The information contained on this site should not be treated as a substitute for medical, legal or other professional advice.