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More Space for Teens to Get Tangled in the Web?

Published May 22, 2006
URBANA - About the time you think you've figured out chat rooms and text messaging, you realize teenagers have already flocked to a new technological and cultural phenomenon, creating their own Web pages for free on sites like myspace.com, xanga.com, facebook.com, and purerave.com. They "blog" (write a running Web log), post artwork, photos and videos, or share links to their favorite sites.

"Unfortunately, the same computer advances that allow youth to access social networks and new sources of knowledge also make them vulnerable to exploitation and harm," said Judy Taylor, a youth development educator with University of Illinois Extension.

With over 51 million users and 2.5 million "groups" to join on the most popular of these sites, parents should at least be aware of these trendy gathering places for teens.

These websites have the potential for content that parents may want to keep from their children. Cyber-bullying has also found its way to these gathering sites. A crucial ingredient to protecting your children from both physical and psychological harm is the involvement of a responsible adult.

To learn about other suggestions for protecting your children from negative content, visit NetSafeKids at http://www.nap.edu/netsafekids/index.html. This site explains how pornography can reach your children and the various filtering and monitoring tools that may help you protect your children.

Like chat rooms, web blogging sites also have the potential for lurking Internet predators. A site may limit those who can join or "create a profile" to those of a certain age or older, but because the only real limitation may be having an active e-mail address, a child could easily join this type of site and computer predators could easily pose as teenagers.

The site's safeguards can help. For example, myspace profiles (a) never include a user's last name, home address, or phone number and (b) can be set so others must be granted permission to join the user's "friend's list." Without this consent, outsiders can't read the user's blog, post comments or attempt contact.

But savvy predators have figured out ways to identify people. The school T-shirt your child has on in the photo he posts, the date or address of an upcoming activity, etc., can provide clues a predator can piece together. A parent's guide at www.fbi.gov/publications/pguide/pguidee.htm provides information about protecting your children from computer sex offenders.

Another issue to be aware of is the unique way your kids may be communicating when they are on-line. "Leetspeak" or "net lingo" are forms of computer slang in which the user replaces regular letters with other keyboard characters to form words phonetically. It was originally used by computer hackers, gamers, and people who just wanted a shorter way of typing messages.

Once again, leetspeak isn't inherently bad. But using this slang to hide information from you, along with other suspect actions, may be a warning signal. P 911 (parent alert), PAW (parents are watching) and PAL (parents are listening) wouldn't be cause for alarm. But what if your child's conversation is filled with TDTM (talk dirty to me), IWSN (I want sex now) and prOn (porn) or NIFOC (nude in front of computer)?

So learn a little about computer slang; it's sort of like knowing about the friends your child hangs out with. Numerous on-line translators and dictionaries are devoted entirely to net lingo. You may also want to visit the National Institute on Media and the Family www.mediawise.org or Wired Safety www.wiredsafety.org to learn more about keeping your children safe.

Here's one additional topic to consider. Young adolescents and teens are more greatly influenced by advertising than other age groups, and business and marketing experts have noticed that huge numbers of young people are gathering every day on these sites.

Some advertisers have begun to pay individuals to express support for specific brands or companies within the individual's affinity group. Repeated marketing efforts from a peer could have great impact on your teen's spending.

So what's a parent to do?

--Continue to be involved with your child and learn about his or her interests, including Internet use.

--Keep computers in a public space in your home, such as the family room, instead of a child's bedroom.

--Continue to monitor your children's computer use, especially on the Internet.

--Rationally weigh the benefits of various aspects of Internet use against the pitfalls as you develop rules for its use.

--Keep communications open, sharing your concerns about the dangers existing on the Internet.

--Respect a teen's frustration about your involvement in his or her Web activities. - 30 -