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Facebook and Twitter remain the social media heavyweight champions. Despite their age restrictions, children as young as 8 or 9 frequently have accounts on both sites.

Today’s children are growing up with social media and an era of unprecedented online sharing. There are both advantages and drawbacks to this.

Studies have shown that social networks like Twitter can help engage students who are too shy or embarrassed to participate in class. More teachers are using online tools (including social networks) to connect with digital natives and to make learning more dynamic and interesting.

Yet there have also been countless examples of children on social networks becoming victims of both bullies and sexual predators.

As the lines between public and private become increasingly blurred, it becomes more important than ever to counsel children on the appropriate use of social networking sites.

There are a number of ways that parents can both mange their children’s presence on Twitter and counsel them on the appropriate use of the site. Here are a few ideas:

Discuss the Importance of Privacy
Like other online networking sites, Twitter offers privacy controls so you can manage what information is shared publicly or privately. Start by setting all of the controls on your child’s Twitter account to share information only with friends and to approve followers before they can see the account.

Next, have a conversation with your children about why such privacy is important. Note the way some information is shared privately with certain individuals and not others, and point out how those rules should be the same for online communication. Talk about how information can be used by others in a negative way, and how some information can remain available online for many years (even if you think it is protected).

Talk about Stranger Danger
You have conversations with your children about the dangers of talking to people that they don’t know, and steps they should take to remain safe in public. You should have the same conversation about online interactions.

Children are often targeted by online predators, who will lie and manipulate to get what they want. This can be as simple as a photo or personal information, or it can be much more sinister, even carrying over into an in-person meet up.

In today’s virtual world, children need to understand that online conversations can have as much weight as in-person ones, and they should approach meeting new people the same way they would if they met them in person. That means that they shouldn’t respond to e-mails, chats, or requests to follow from people they don’t know – even if they seem like they are from other children.

Discuss Bullying
No matter who your child is in-person, he or she could become vulnerable to being bullied or to becoming a bully online.

Virtual interactions have a way of changing the dynamic, as many kids are able to distance themselves emotionally from the words they use in text. What one child would say online, he might not say in-person. That means your child has the potential to be bullied or to become the bully.

Talk to your children about what constitutes bullying, using specific examples. What many kids think of as jokes or pranks can actually come across as bullying, and the effects can be devastating for some.

Also talk to you kids about how to recognize bullying and how to report it. The more children are educated about the problem, the better they will be able to participate in stopping it.

Set Boundaries
Many children just want to be on Twitter because they know that their friends are – they may not understand what good reasons there are to use the site or what appropriate behavior is for the site.

Talk to your children about why they want to be on Twitter and how those intentions should translate to their online behavior. For example, if they want to stay in touch with friends, then they should be communicating positively with friends and not saying negative things about school or other classmates.

Once you have this conversation, set boundaries about what behavior is acceptable. Let your children know that you will be their “follower,” and that you will be silently monitoring their online activity. (Just note: You shouldn’t post to their feed or reply to any of their tweets, as this could attract unwanted attention from peers.)

Ultimately, online networking sites like Twitter can be positive tools for children, allowing them to connect with friends, teachers, and family. However, there is potential for the site to be misused, and children need to be aware of the dangers of sharing personal information or of talking with strangers online. Make sure you have these conversations with your children, and they should be able to have a safe and positive experience on Twitter and other social networking sites.

Do you allow your children to use Twitter or other social networks? What conversations did you have with your children first? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and researcher for CollegeScholarships.org, where recently she’s been researching scholarships and school loans with bad credit. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Earnest Parenting: help for parents with children in the online world.

Image courtesy of Paul Mayne via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.