15 Steps to Safer Social Networking for Your Child

If your child, tween or younger teen is a member of an adult-intended social network like Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, and switching over to an age-appropriate alternative like Yoursphere isn't an option, then I recommend you do the following 15 things to optimize their opportunity for a safer social networking experience:

1. Talk to your kids, and don't stop talking. Having a consistent dialogue about online safety is one of the most important things a parent can do. Online actions have real-world consequences. What your children post or share today may hurt them or someone else tomorrow.

Mary Kay Hoal
Mary Kay Hoal

2. Set the ground rules. Technology and memberships to social networks are privileges, not rights. Let them know that you have rules and that there are consequences for not following them. For example, set time limits. Moderation is key. As with TV and video games, social networking should be limited and balanced with a healthy dose of physical activities.

3. Enable strict content filtering. These networks are filled with adult-intended content, so if your child clicks on a link his/her friend has sent or posted, you can prevent access to the content if it's not appropriate.

4. Install antivirus and malware software. Products like those from McAfee, Norton and AVG are great options as social networks are notorious for facilitating the distribution of malicious applications and links. In addition, use monitoring software. There are great tools like BSecure, Social Shield, and NetNanny that alert you to any concerning phrases or words.

5. Enable YouTube Safety Mode. Not all videos shared on social networks are meant for children. Safety Mode helps block access to content you would otherwise restrict. And use Google SafeSearch. In adult social networks, your child may see a photo or read about a topic they wouldn't normally be exposed to. SafeSearch helps prevent additional exposure to such content.

6. Privacy lockdown. Set your child's privacy settings to "private" or "friends only," and don't allow them to post information such as their last name, date of birth, cellphone number, email and IM addresses and school.

7. Keep your child's physical location private. Disable Facebook Places and photo geo-tagging, and configure privacy settings for photo tagging on Facebook.

8. Know your child's password. This is much more effective than being their Facebook "friend" as you'll be able to log into his/her account any time and see what's going on. If you're just "friends," your child can configure his/her privacy settings to prevent you from seeing certain things.

9. Watermark their photos. It helps protect the photos from being used as a cyberbullying tool, or from being stolen and manipulated by someone with ill intentions.

10. Know their friends. For your younger children, you should know their online friends in real life. For your teens, have them explain to you how they know each friend. When in doubt, unfriend.

11. Don't use the applications (apps) shared within the network. You wouldn't sell your child's data to a stranger, or allow your child to stand on a street corner handing out his/her photo and personal information to companies or people. That's what these apps amount to. That's what you're allowing.

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12. Sign up for Google Alerts. When you sign up for an alert with your child's name, it's a proactive way to find out if anything about them is being posted on the Internet. Keep in mind this doesn't include comments or messages in social networks.

13. Beware of the bully. Teach your children not to respond if they are bullied. Teach them that the proper way to handle the situation is to tell you about the incident, block the person and then make a digital copy.

14. Kindness and respect. Social networks are tools that should be used for positive purposes, not to be unkind or hurtful to other people. Teach this to your children.

15. Stay informed. Keeping up with technology can be intimidating and overwhelming. Fortunately, there are a number of great resources out there like YoursphereForParents, LOOKBOTHWAYS, and the Social Networking Safety group on Facebook that can help your family have a safe online and social networking experience.

In the end, the investment of time you make in talking with your children, taking these steps and staying involved will benefit you and your family, as well as your relationship with your children.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Read more about Mary Kay Hoal here.