More than 100 million teens across America use MySpace.com to communicate with each other online. Chances are that your kids are among them. The site, which allows teens to create their own Web pages, can be a fun way for your kids to express themselves and connect with friends. But it can also be a portal to danger, opening the door to predators who want to find and take advantage of kids like yours.
What makes the crucial difference is how involved you are as a parent in your kids’ online activities. Do you know what kind of personal information they’re posting for the world to see? Do you know who they’re chatting with online?
If not, you should. Here’s how you can protect your kids on MySpace.com:
Seek to guide, not control. Understand that you’ll relate more successfully to your kids – and empower them to grow more mature – if you guide them toward wise decisions rather than forcing those decisions on them. Ask God to give you the wisdom to work with your kids in respectful ways to help them learn about what is and isn’t appropriate online. Recognize that you need your kids’ cooperation to give you access to their MySpace accounts, and keep in mind that you want your kids to trust you enough to open up to you. Don’t spy on them, resorting to deception to gain information about what they’re doing online. Instead, be honest with your kids about why you’re monitoring their behavior, and know that your kids will likely respond to your honesty by being transparent with you. Remind them that, on the Internet, once they post something they can’t take it back, because it can be easily forwarded all over cyberspace. Also remind them that people aren’t always who they claim to be online, and often it’s very difficult to discern the truth about people’s real identities and all too easy to be deceived by predators. Explain your reasons for concern to your kids instead of just demanding that they stop doing something on MySpace just because you said so. Help your kids understand the biblical principles behind your decisions. Realize that if you show them how to think and pray thoroughly about something rather than jumping to conclusions, you’ll set an inspiring example for them and they’ll be more likely to follow that process to make their own decisions. Consider having your kids use the computer in the open (such as in the living room) instead of in their bedrooms, or at least knowing that you can look over their shoulders at any time while they’re online. Once they mature and demonstrate greater responsibility, prayerfully consider giving them more freedom.
Get to know the site. Realize that MySpace isn’t your enemy; it’s simply a technology that can be used for either good or bad purposes. Know that the better you understand MySpace, the more effectively you can use it to figure out what your kids are doing online and how best to protect them. Expect your kids to respect what you say more if you know how to navigate MySpace, appreciate its benefits, and understand its problems. Open your own free account with MySpace so you can experience everything your kids do on the site and come to thoroughly understand it. Then spend whatever time you can each day learning more about how to navigate the site. Know that you can follow your kids around simply by clicking on the different pictures, videos, comments, blogs, and links on their pages.
Review your kids’ personal pages. Recognize that the headline sections are like snapshots of your kids’ personalities. Notice what kind of image of themselves your kids are presenting. Pay attention to the type of personal information your kids have included. Make sure they don’t disclose their schools, hometown, address, or phone number, so predators won’t know their physical location. But also make sure that they’re honest about their ages, especially because MySpace has safeguards in place to protect younger users. Encourage your kids to use their first names only, and not to go into detail about sensitive private topics such as dating relationships, sexual histories, addictions, tragic family stories, and fragile dreams. Look at the photos and videos your kids have uploaded, and consider whether or not any are too flirtatious, show family or friends (which might help strangers piece together your kids’ lives and destroy your privacy) or feature distinguishing landmarks that can help predators determine where your kids live. Read the comments posted on your kids’ pages by every visitor, and click on each visitor’s name to go to that person’s pages to see who they are and whether or not your kids have left comments for them. Check out which groups (virtual chat rooms) your kids participate in, what they discuss there, and who they’re interacting with in the groups. Read your kids’ blogs (online journals) and blurbs. Pay attention to the “Top 8” list on your kid’s front page; this lists their top eight friend profiles and will likely give you a goldmine of information about their closest friends. Run your mouse over everything else on your kids’ pages to see if anything has a hidden link. Ask your kids why they’ve chosen to feature the type of information and images they’ve posted on their pages, and listen respectfully and so they know you’re genuinely trying to understand their perspectives.
Don’t panic. If you discover something troubling on your kids’ MySpace pages, don’t just react in anger right away. Take time to pray before discussing it with them. Be quick to handle situations that threaten your kids’ physical or emotional safety. But be patient about situations that are less dire, and be gentle when talking to your kids about changing something on their pages that isn’t your personal preference, but isn’t necessarily wrong. If you see that your kids have posted information about themselves that isn’t true, remember that teens often say what they think other kids want to hear, and use your discovery as an opportunity to talk with your kids about the importance of honesty. Listen carefully to them and discern what motivated them to post the information they posted on their pages. Then pray about how best to reach out to them to help meet their needs for validation and affirmation. Recognize that MySpace doesn’t create problems; it simply reveals them. Be grateful that MySpace has revealed issues that need addressing in your kids’ lives, so that you don’t have to guess about how you can help them. Use the information you’ve gained from your kids’ MySpace pages to create a clear plan to teach your kids and help meet the needs you now know that they have.
Don’t blame. Accept that you, as your kids’ parent, are ultimately responsible for raising them well. Know that if you neglect that responsibility and your kids turn to media such as the Internet or TV in your absence, you shouldn’t blame the media for how it has influenced your kids. Don’t leave your kids feeling abandoned and trying to fulfill needs through the media that should really be filled through a relationship with you. Step up to the plate to be the powerful and positive influence that God wants you to be in your kids’ lives. Make your kids a top priority in your life. Always know where they are, who they’re with, what they’re doing, and why. Make whatever sacrifices are necessary to devote significant time and energy to your relationships with your kids; stay closely connected to them and actively involved in their lives. Use whatever mistakes they make online as opportunities to teach them truths of the faith and encourage them to grow closer to Christ. Keep in mind that the temptations your kids face online vary according to their gender: daughters are especially vulnerable to seductive talk, while sons are especially vulnerable to seductive pictures and videos. Be sensitive to that and establish the kind of close relationship with your kids that will allow you to discuss tough issues with them openly and honestly. Never be afraid to bring up sensitive subjects with your kids; realize that they freely discuss such subjects online. Give your kids the attention they crave so they won’t go looking for it from unhealthy sources.
Change settings. Know that you can help protect your kids a lot by simply having them set their profiles to “private” so only their friends can see them. Also consider having your kids change their privacy and profile settings to add more safe boundaries.
Work with your kids to delete whatever is troubling you. Talk with your kids about why you’d like them to delete certain information, images, online friends, or groups from their MySpace pages. Don’t just demand that they remove it; help them understand the reasons why, and work together to make changes to their pages. Remember that this approach will help them build the critical thinking skills they’ll need to make wise decisions online after they grow up and leave your house.
Use Internet filters. Install a software package that will filter the types of Internet content your kids can access and help you monitor their activities online.
Get support from online safety groups. Check out groups like Wiredsafety.org (the world’s largest online safety group), Blogsafety.com (a form where parents and experts can talk about safe blogging and social networking) and Familywatchdog.us (a site that provides maps and locations of registered sex offenders in your area).
Encourage your kids to invest in real-world relationships. Make sure that your kids aren’t spending so much time in cyberspace that they’re neglecting their face-to-face relationships with friends in the real world. Give them plenty of creative and productive activities to engage in so they don’t have idle hands, unexercised minds, and uncommitted hearts – which make them more likely to get into trouble online. Encourage your kids to keep growing in how they love God and other people in the real world, so when they get online they can positively influence others rather than having others negatively influence them.
Adapted from MySpace, MyKids: A Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Kids and Navigating MySpace.com, copyright 2007 by Jason Illian. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Or., http://www.harvesthousepublishers.com/.
Jason Illian was named one of the top 20 students in America by USA Today. His role on ABC’s The Bachelorette has opened doors for him to speak across the country on abstinence, transformational leadership, and faith. He has also written Undressed: The Naked Truth about Love, Sex, and Dating, published by Time Warner.