Posts, status updates, comments, instant messages, video uploads, tweets, and texts have become a regular part of our kids' lives. In today's 24/7 digital world, kids are logging on from everywhere, including smartphones, gaming devices, tablets, and laptops, and many parents simply don't know what their kids are up to, much less much about the social media they're using.

The reality is that most kids start developing online relationships around the age of 8, usually through virtual worlds like Club Penguin. By age 10, they've progressed to multiplayer games and sharing their digital creations and homemade videos on sites like YouTube. By age 13, millions of kids have already created accounts on social networking sites like Facebook

There are many positives to social media. It's a fun way for kids to interact with friends. It can also be a great way to learn new things, collaborate with others, express creativity, and safely experiment with identity.

The problem comes when kids share their private thoughts, photos, videos, and personal information. These revealing posts can become very public and last a long time. A post of a provocative photo or a picture with a beer bottle in hand could end up damaging a kid's reputation.

Even more troubling are the privacy and safety issues that come with social networking. Marketers collect data based on your kids' online activity and then target ads to them. And now with the ability to easily post your location, physical safety becomes a concern. 

While no one knows what effect increased social networking has on kids' development, it's clear that young people do need some guidance around use. So how can you help your kids make good decisions as they navigate their virtual lives?

Parent tips for middle school kids

  1. Facebook won't let kids have sites if they're under 13. That said, kids simply do the math to figure out what year to put so they'll seem 13 -- or older. Check your kid's computer browser history. If you see Facebook listed, assume your kid has an account.
  2. Tell your kids to think before they post. Remind them that everything can be seen by a vast, invisible audience (otherwise known as friends of friends of friends). Each family is different, but for middle school kids, it's a good idea for parents to have access to their kids' pages, at least at first, to be sure that what's being posted is appropriate. Parents can help keep their children from doing something they'll regret later.
  3. Make sure kids set their privacy settings. Privacy settings aren't foolproof, but they're important. Take the time to learn how privacy settings work on your kids' favorite sites, and teach your kids how to control their privacy.
  4. Kindness counts. Lots of sites have anonymous applications like "bathroom wall" or "honesty boxes" that allow users to tell their friends what they think of them. Rule of thumb: If your children wouldn't say it to someone's face, they shouldn't post it.
  5. Go online. If you don't have one already, get an account for yourself. See what kids can and can't do.