There has been intense publicity over recent weeks about the dangers of social networking sites such as Bebo and MySpace. In response to these concerns, UK watchdog the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) is running workshops next week where parents, teachers, young people and the industry will discuss the issues and how to make these sites safer.
The risk that attracts most of the press attention is that of paedophiles using the site to meet children. But cyber-bullying can also be a problem and there's the more ordinary risk that a potential employer could find your child's profile and decide against hiring them due to what they've posted.
Here are a few safety pointers to make sure your kids stay safe online:
1) Most social networking sites have a minimum age for users -- for Bebo it is 13, for MySpace it is 14. But as the sites do not ask for proof of age, it's worth making sure your younger children aren't using it. If they are, report it to the site and they will take down their profile.
2) Make sure your children aren't giving out private information such as their full name, age, address, email address or phone number. It may be worth getting them to use a separate email address for their Bebo account -- that way if they do have problems they can simply ditch that email address and continue using their main one. Photos can also be a bad idea -- particularly as they can easily be downloaded or edited by other people.
3) Make your children aware that people are not always who they seem online, so if it's not a real-life friend then they shouldn't give out personal information or accept them as a friend on their contact list. You should also make them aware of the dangers of meeting someone they've met online in person. If they're determined to meet them, make sure you or someone else goes along with them.
4) If someone has behaved strangely or is bullying your child you can report it to the site itself -- click on 'Report Abuse' on the members' profile in Bebo, or click on the 'Contact MySpace' on the bottom of each page. Or you can report it on the CEOP's Think U Know Web site.
5) Make your children aware that anything they write may come back to bite them. Employers often Google prospective employees nowadays and if your child has set their homepage to be public then it's likely to be picked up by search engines. If your child has used their full name on their profile (rather than their nickname), any employer searching on their name will probably get their Bebo homepage as the first link coming up.