Summer Screen Time: How to Keep Your Kids' Web Surfing Safe

The final school bell rings, and kids stream out of the building with nothing on their minds but three months of lying on the grass, riding bikes, going away to camp and hours and hours of unsupervised Web surfing...wait, what?

Welcome to summer vacation 2012, where your kids may be envisioning a vacation packed with tech time. Since you want fun, safe and enriching places for your kid to visit, Common Sense Media has smart tips for parents to help you manage your kids experience on some of the most popular websites for kids.

Twitter
At this micro-blogging social networking site, kids can follow celebrities, friends, organizations and even companies like Nike or charities like Greenpeace. Kids over 13 can tweet for themselves, too. Because Twitter is easily connected to other social media outlets, teens' tweets immediately show up on their Facebook page -- or their friends' smartphones.

--Keep an eye out: Take a look at the people your kids are following. Are they using inappropriate language? Too much innuendo? Make sure your teens understand what's okay to post and what isn't. If you're new to Twitter, learn what it's all about.

--Get involved: Help your teen sort their followers into groups (friends and family, craft bloggers, celebrities, etc.). It will make things so much easier when your teen doesn't have to sort through hundreds of tweets to see what his best friend is tweeting about during his cross-country family road trip.

--Similar sites: Plurk, Tumblr

YouTube
YouTube is famous for its outrageous videos, but did you know that kids can learn new skills there, too? Excellent instructional videos can teach them everything from playing a G-major scale on the guitar to building a model airplane to making milk carton greenhouses.

--Keep an eye out: Make sure your kids know what they're looking for before they hop on YouTube -- otherwise they can get lost in age-inappropriate stuff. Younger kids should stick to YouTube's Family Channel. Check in from time to time, and be ready to steer them away from inappropriate ads on top of the suggested video column (like the one for World of Warcraft that pops up while the Sid the Science Kid video is loading).

--Get involved: Create a channel for your family so you can update family and friends on your summer adventures, from surf lessons to road-trip pit stops. Have your teen make and post response videos for the fan site of their favorite book.

--Similar sites: Kideos, Kidobi, Zuitube

Facebook
With good judgment and privacy settings, teens can safely use Facebook to play games and keep in touch with their friends over the summer.

--Keep an eye out: Teens may post suggestive summer swimsuit photos, so discuss what's appropriate to share online. Another no-no for teens: posting pics of friends at an exclusive hangout just to make uninvited kids jealous. Even if your teen is already on Facebook, the start of the summer is a great time to take another look at privacy settings.

--Get involved: Have family overseas? Your teen can learn so much about new cultures and long-distance communication as she uses Facebook to keep in touch with a cousin who's studying abroad. Hosting a barbecue, yard sale or carwash? Plan it with your teens, and set it up as an event for people of all ages. Just be sure to double-check the invitee list before sending it out.

--Similar sites: Bebo, Giant Hello, Everloop

Miniclip
With hundreds of games -- from solo puzzle games to multiplayer challenges -- it's easy to see how kids can lose themselves on gaming sites like Miniclip.

--Keep an eye out: If there are any gamers in your house, you probably already know how tough it is for them to set limits for themselves. Establish time limits before they get started, and set a timer if you have to. You can also encourage kids to get a group of friends together at your house for a multiplayer adventure. They'll be able to socialize face-to-face while waiting their turn. Just make sure you stock up on snacks for your band of adventurers!

--Get involved: Encourage older kids to use their valuable screen time on games, rather than in game rooms that are largely unmonitored chat spaces. Have older siblings show younger ones how to navigate new, age-appropriate games.

--Similar sites: Pogo, Popcap Games, Addicting Games, Crazy Monkey Games

Club Penguin

Beginner virtual worlds give little kids the chance to chat with friends, explore interesting spaces, play games, and, on some sites, care for virtual pets.

--Keep an eye out: Since these sites are geared toward a younger crowd, they usually have language and behavior restrictions. But some players may try to get around the restrictions by using "$" instead of "S" to spell out inappropriate words, etc. Is your kid enjoying himself or running into troublesome members?

--Get involved: Sit with kids and explore the virtual world together. If they've been playing for a while, ask for a tour. If you're not sitting with them, check in often to make sure they're having fun, being creative and enjoying the experience. Sooner or later, your kid may want to officially join the site, and you'll want to be sure it's worth the money. Also, since it's so easy for kids to lose track of how much time they're spending online, try setting a timer, and make sure to give them a 5-minute warning before their time is up.

--Similar sites: Poptropica, Moshi Monsters, Webkinz, Webkinz Jr.

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