Why we worry: Networking sites like Facebook and MySpace bring out the worst in our kids, who try on bad-girl or bad-boy personas in a venue that every college-admissions officer and job interviewer can see. Worse, the sites make them vulnerable to sexual predators.
Relax. The reality is: striking sexy poses and experimenting with different identities is part and parcel of adolescence, and the Internet is a relatively safe environment for doing so, says Cassell. What's more, the prevalence of tech may well have made our teens smarter about fending off online stalkers. The percentage of kids reporting sexual solicitations has declined since 2000, from 19 percent to 13 percent, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Part of the reason is that more than half of teens with personal pages know not to post their full names and addresses. They also use a privacy feature that grants full access only to those they've invited to be their "friends" -- almost always people they know directly or who've been referred by a mutual acquaintance. As a result, says Cassell, "teens can spot suspect adults immediately and just ignore them."
Still, get smart by: constantly reminding your teens and especially tweens about online risks. Make sure they know that what goes up, stays up -- forever. You can drive the point home by showing them the Wayback Machine (internetarchive.org), which crawls the Web, archiving billions of pages for posterity. And tell them that you're checking their computer history and postings. "Kids need a grown-up watching their backs but not snooping over their shoulders," says Jenkins. If you find something objectionable, have a sit-down and ask them to take it down. Brace yourself for attack and stick to your guns, like I did with Gracie.
Finally, learn the ways of the Web. Start a blog or put up your own MySpace page, and tap your teen as your guide, suggests Jenkins. Once you get a little tech cred, your kids will be more likely to listen to your words of advice and heed them. Me, I've decided to dip my toes in this strange new world. Gracie's promised to help me build my own page -- as long as I don't insist on being her "friend." Right now I'm trying to choose my theme song -- maybe Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down"?
Originally published in Family Circle magazine, August 2007.