Instant Messaging Safety for Kids

It's no wonder kids love to instant message with their friends -- it's fast, convenient and fun when combined with emoticons and other IM tools. However, what seems like an innocent way to chat with friends at home can become a serious risk, especially when your child isn't safe on IM services and sites. Give her a rundown on what is and isn't allowed and offer the proper supervision so instant messaging doesn't lead to more serious and inappropriate Internet behavior.

Age Limits

While it's up to you to decide when to let your child start using instant messaging services, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services warns against letting younger children chat online. Their website notes that kids under 8 shouldn't instant message, and kids between 8 and 10 should only use pre-approved blogs, services and websites for chatting. As your child gets a little older, you can revisit privacy, safety and security then.

IM Services and Sites

There are two types of instant messaging. One type requires a downloaded program and utilizes friends lists for chatting. The second type allows your child to log into a website and chat with a number of people, including strangers. Always check into any website or service in which your child expresses an interest. For IM services, make sure that there are privacy settings that stop chatters from requesting that you child add them to their friends list, and provides a setting where you can approve anyone your child adds. Online sites are trickier because anyone can use them. Look for kid-centric sites that have chat moderation and don't have private rooms or messaging capabilities 2.

Screen Names and Passwords

If your child isn't careful, her screen name could give TMI -- too much information. Together, work on choosing an online name for the IM service or website that doesn't give too much away about gender, age or location. Predators could use those details to discover specific information about your child. If the IM site or service is one where your child has a standard profile, keep the details ambiguous and create a password that isn't easy to guess.

Chatting with Friends

As a parent, you should have final approval on anyone that your child tries to add to her IM. That way, you can weed out potential dangers or anyone that your child doesn't know in real life. When chatting with her friends, ask your child to keep personal information private, and never to reveal her location to strangers who want to chat. She should also never acquiesce to meeting someone she only knows from the Internet in person. It's important that you're the one who has control over her friends list and are constantly monitoring her chat topics and partners.