All too often, we’re advised to talk to teens about the Internet in the emphatic, wide-eyed sort of way that trips all their alarms: Warning, warning, clueless parent ahead! Sure, there are plenty of traps and dangers lurking on the Web for a naive young person. But teens are like bashful deer: Make too much noise, and they’ll go bolting into the brush.

Instead of giving teens the Internet version of “The Talk,” replete with rules and warnings, approach them with something less threatening: a handy toolbox of ways they can make the Internet work to their advantage. What teen doesn’t crave more control? Show them how to take the reins when it comes to the Web, so you have a hand in protecting them online in the years ahead.

  1. Dodge malware and spyware: If teens have their own computers, teach them how to update their software and install and use a reputable antivirus program like the free Microsoft Security Essentials for Windows. Point out Microsoft’s guidelines to avoid spyware: Never download anything (especially from free movie and music sites) without verifying the trustworthiness of the source, don’t open email from people you don’t know and don’t click links in oddly phrased messages from friends.
  2. Show before you go: Smart computer users hover the mouse pointer over a link before clicking to display the full URL, to confirm the link doesn’t redirect to a malware-infested scam site.
  3. The importance of backup: Your teen will be crushed if your PC crashes or the hard drive fails. There are several cloud storage solutions that automatically back up documents, photos and music – consider trying Google Drive or Microsoft SkyDrive, or look to Mozy pro online backup for larger storage capacity for files, images, music, videos and more. Not only do these services remove the fear of losing valuable data, they enable your teen to share and access data from anywhere there’s an Internet connection.
  4. Safeguard personal information: You knew this topic was coming, and so will your kids. Soften the blow by being matter-of-fact about Internet safety; your job is to help them see that while the Internet isn’t exactly fraught with danger, it does hide people who might spend weeks or even months posing as someone they’re not in order to lure personal information from a minor. Review the list of things they should never share with anyone: full names, home addresses (and even general neighborhoods), school names, email addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, passwords, names of family members and credit card numbers.
  5. Why Wikipedia may not be your friend: Is there a reason teachers keep telling students they can’t cite Wikipedia as a reference on papers? Why, yes – actually, there are 10 of them.
  6. No account sharing, period: All those times you exhorted your toddler to share, share, share with playmates? Now you get to reel that back in. Remind teens that while you may trust them, there’s no telling what their friends (or their friends’ friends) might do with the personal details and credit card information tied to your family’s game and online accounts.
  7. Play it safe with photos: Sharing photos fascinates teens. You can’t change that, but you can remind them that once they’ve put a photo out there — even to just one friend — they’ve lost control of it. Social media can whirl an image around the world in a matter of minutes, and most photographic indiscretions prove impossible to eradicate completely. Especially important: no nudity. “In most states, teenagers who send or receive sexually explicit photographs by cellphone or computer – known as ‘sexting’ – have risked felony child pornography charges and being listed on a sex offender registry for decades to come,” noted The New York Times.
  8. Double-check rumors: Point them to to confirm or debunk any online rumors they hear about, and familiarize yourself with the common Internet scams. According to the New York Times, 300,000 people a day visit the site to “find out if indeed Bill Gates is sending out free laptops, if President Obama is a Muslim or if Mikey from the Life commercials really died.”
  9. Manners matter more than ever: In a world where business is conducted via email and instant messages, kids need to remember that interacting with others online isn’t all text slang and funny cat pictures. Show your kids how to use proper Web etiquette in dealing with persons in authority. While casual words may ring true with friends, it’s best to stick to proper grammar and written manners to communicate on an adult level, too.
  10. Watch what your teens post: Many teens think what they post on the Web is visible only to friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. Show them advanced search techniques so they comprehend how easily their profiles can be viewed, and go over their social networks’ security features. Learn more about how to monitor your teen’s online social life.

Some parents may need these tips sooner than later; we’re seeing more kids in the 7-12 year-old range with mobile phone access and tablet access in stores, malls and while on vacation. It may be time to have that Web precaution talk today.

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