Social media networking has almost replaced face-to-face dialogue as a way for kids to interact, making it tougher for parents to keep tuned in.
Online communication often brings privacy and safety concerns for parents. Yet experts say parents can navigate those networks to keep their kids, and their sanity, safe — as long as they prepare, engage and even do a little old-fashioned snooping.
"Parents need a digital-use plan," said Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, a Boston-based pediatrician, founder of the communications company Pediatrics Now, lead author of a report on social media and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
If you can't beat Facebook, join it
Because of the ubiquitous use of the Internet and technology, ignoring or banning the use of either is almost senseless, said O'Keeffe.
Her digital-use plan includes making sure parents know which sites and services their children are visiting and using, such Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, and with whom the children are communicating.
Parents should next learn how each of these popular sites and services works. For example, it's crucial to at least have a grasp of Facebook's complicated privacy settings.
Even better, parents can be actively using the sites and services as well. Don't be afraid to "friend" your kid on Facebook, said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco that advises parents on media and technology.
"My advice is that parents work with their kids to make sure they are using social networks' built-in tools to help keep them private and safe," Knorr said. "Make sure you know what those rules are. Look at what the options are."
It's not a phone, it's a tracker
Such transparency between parents and children, experts say, will be helpful in combating one of the most sinister risks — online sexual predators looking for children and teenagers.
Sexual predators "are going to the places where the kids are," said John Shehan, executive director of the Exploited Child Division at the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
(The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has a website providing information about social media and technology at http://www.netsmartz411.com.)
One hidden risk of Facebook and other online social-media services involves location. A friend of your child's could upload a photo from a specific location and then "tag" your child as being in the photo — inadvertently revealing where your child is.
Likewise, photos taken by smartphone cameras often embed location data into the photo file itself, meaning that kids can be put themselves in danger without even realizing it when they tweet links to posted images. Make sure the phone's geotagging features are turned off.
The virtues of restraint
Parents must also educate their children about the staying power of a cyber footprint, say the experts. Whatever they do online, stays online — forever.
Cruel messages about classmates, inappropriate photos or too much information about their personal lives — any of which can be posted quickly on Twitter — can remain in cyberspace long after they're forgotten.
"Once you push a button, it's not sacred anymore," said Debra Katzman, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto and member of the Canadian Pediatric Society.
Parents can best serve their children by knowing and learning how to use the newest sites and services their children are using, checking in on what their children are writing online and whom they are communicating with and keeping the computer in communal areas of the home.
"Communication is so important," Shehan said.
"The best way to keep kids safe is to talk to them," O'Keeffe echoed.