January 28th was data privacy day. And, according to the National Center for the Victims of Crime, January was also Stalking Awareness Month.  It’s not January anymore but I’m going to briefly talk  about online safety anyway.

I’m not going to insist you back up your data or check your Facebook privacy (though of course you should do both of those). Nope. I want to suggest you talk to your kids.

I've been working on a story where I've been talking in detail with families about how they and their teenagers use technology. It’s been a blast. But one unintentional side-effect of these conversations is that I’m finding myself a little worried about how much unsupervised and unschooled access to the Internet and mobile tools some teenagers have. I've always considered the Internet and smart phones one of those things I have to constantly talk to my kids about. Like the “birds and the bees,” I started early and I bring it up often, offering whatever information they are ready for at every age. But many parents seem to believe their kids already know what they are doing. Or that the parents are too clueless to offer advice.

I asked Michelle Dennedy, VP and Chief Privacy Officer at McAfee, if she thought this was common or just a fluke with the families I've been talking to. She spends a lot of time going to schools to talk to kids about online safety so she gets into this with a lot of kids and teens. “Unfortunately,” she told me. “When it comes to talking to kids about safety, you are in a minority. Most parents either lock kids out of the Internet at home or trust that their kids know what they are doing and let them figure it out alone.”

Neither approach is the safest way to go. If you lock the kids out at home, they'll find another way to get online and do it without your guidance. (They will also miss out on some terrific learning benefits.) And if you let them figure it out alone, they will make dangerous mistakes. These are mistakes that can bring serious consequences.

Since January was Stalking Awareness Month, let’s start there. According to the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and McAfee, 20 percent of Americans have been affected by cyberstalking, persistent emails, and other unwanted contact. Unfortunately, they usually have often attracted this unwanted attention through some form of online over-sharing.

For example, Dennedy told me about a young woman she spoke to a while ago. “This woman had just discovered location-aware apps that let you check in and tell your friends where you are. She traveled a lot and thought these were great. She used them to tell her friends she was in a new town, had arrived at her hotel, or was in a coffee shop alone and could use a friend.”

These apps can be great tools. I use FourSquare to locate colleagues when I’m at a trade show. Dennedy does the same. They can be fun and a real time saver. But Dennedy knew this wouldn't end well for this young woman who was offering too much information, too often, and without first vetting who was in her social network and would see it. Announcing to your entire social network – one that probably has more than one complete stranger in it -- that you are alone in a new town is just plain dangerous. Sure enough, the next time Dennedy met her, the woman had gone into digital hiding to avoid more than one stalker.

Are your kids doing something like that?

Most of the parents I've spoken to recently would insist that is not something their child would ever do. But that might be wishful thinking. Even careful kids may simply be unaware of the risks if you haven’t explained them. According to a recent McAfee study, “nearly half of parents believe their teens tell them everything they do online and insist they are in control when it comes to monitoring their teen’s online behaviors.” But when McAfee surveyed teens it found that “over 70% found ways to avoid parental monitoring.”

10 ways teens fool their parents:

  1. Clearing the browser history (53%)
  2. Close/minimize browser when parent walked in (46%)
  3. Hide or delete IMs or videos (34%)
  4. Lie or omit details about online activities (23%)
  5. Use a computer your parents don’t check (23%)
  6. Use an internet-enabled mobile device (21%)
  7. Use privacy settings to make certain content viewable only by friends (20%)
  8. Use private browsing modes (20%)
  9. Create private email address unknown to parents (15%)
  10. Create duplicate/fake social network profiles (9%)

What do they need to hide?

15% of teens have hacked a social network account

30.7% access pirated movies and music

8.7% have hacked someone’s email online

16% of teens having admitted to looking for test answers on their phone

48.1% of teens having looked up answers online.

So, even if you are monitoring what your kids are doing, there is still no substitute for teaching them safe practices. If a feeling that you don’t know what you are talking about is keeping you from bringing this up, there are some great online resources to help you frame a discussion with your kids.

For general online safety tips and talking points for talking to your kids, go to StaySafeOnline.org. And, for information and guidance on stalking, start at StalkingAwarenessMonth.org.

In a hurry? At least scan this guide to raising digital citizens.

Think your kids are too young for this? That’s an opportunity!

“Before puberty, kids love to show off what they know to their parents,” says Donnedy. You can use that to get to know what they are up to and learn a thing or two about the digital world at the same time. Make some popcorn, sit down in from of a screen, and ask for a tour. Your younger kids will be thrilled. You’ll probably have a laugh. And you’ll be starting your Internet birds and bees talk right. Unlike the sex talk, this is one conversation your kids are not embarrassed to have with you.

Christina Tynan-Wood writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle, and is the author of “How to Be a Geek Goddess.” You can find her at GeekGirlfriends.com.   Follow me on Twittter!