5 Questions to Ask Your Kids About Their Online Life

Studies show that parental involvement is the number one factor in keeping kids safe online. As with any other activity, understanding what our kids do online means being involved and asking questions.
02/19/2013 07:48pm ET | Updated April 21, 2013
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FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2011 file photo, a magnifying glass is posed over a monitor displaying a Facebook page in Munich. Facebook is proposing to end its practice of letting users vote on changes to its privacy policies, though it will continue to let users comment on proposed updates. The world's biggest social media company said in a blog post Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, that its voting mechanism, which is triggered only if enough people comment on proposed changes, has become a system that emphasizes quantity of responses over quality of discussion. Users tend to leave one or two-word comments objecting to changes instead of more in-depth responses. (AP Photo/dapd, Joerg Koch, File)

Studies show that parental involvement is the number one factor in keeping kids safe online. As with any other activity, understanding what our kids do online means being involved and asking questions. Here are some tips about picking the time, place and tone for the conversation to get the results you want.

You want information, but you need to avoid an interrogation. No one wants to feel like they did something wrong, and the "third degree" often results in a defensive, resentful silence.

One approach to use is let your child be the teacher. Tell him or her you want to get better at social media and see what happens. As an added benefit, you might learn something about social media yourself. Whatever approach you use, here are five questions you can use to get the ball rolling.

1. What is your favorite thing to do on Facebook?
More kids are on Facebook than any social media site; nearly 90% of all teens have at least one social media account. It's pretty straightforward and open-ended question that will tell you what your kid thinks you want to know. It also sets the stage for the questions that follow.

2. Do you have a lot of friends on Facebook? How many?
This question is a chance for your child to brag about their friends and opens the conversation to how they interact with these people and how they meet them. Feelings of envy or competition can lead many kids to adding people they don't know very well (or at all!) to bulk up their friends list.

3. Are these mostly kids you met at school, sports or someplace else offline?
(add or substitute your child's group activities as appropriate)
An important reminder is not to say "in real life" in comparison to online in the conversation, because online life is real to kids. There is no differentiation between the online and offline worlds.

Having Facebook friends they don't know offline is not always a sign something is wrong. For example, Jane adds Jessica as a friend because Jane's friend Susan vouched for Jessica, sort of the way LinkedIn works with adults. However, it is something to watch out for. According to a report from Cincinnati's Children's Hospital in the journal Pediatrics, as many as 30 percent of girls have arranged an in-person meeting with someone they met on the Internet.

Asking how your child adds Facebook friends helps you to understand the ratio of "real" friends in their Facebook community better. It will also trigger red flags if you find your child is often meeting people in person after they have met online.

4. What is your favorite site after Facebook?
It's more than just Facebook out there! Parents need to broaden their understanding of their kids' online activities. Fifty percent of all teens are on Twitter and one in three teens uses Tumblr. Meanwhile, teen use of photo sharing sites like Instagram and Snapchat is on the rise. You want to find out what platforms and channels your kids are using to interact with other people -- and why. By understanding the platforms your children use, you will have a clearer idea of activities they are or might be engaged in. Do your own research on popular social platforms like Tumblr, Flickr, etc. If you use monitoring software, you can crosscheck what they say -- and I strongly recommend that you do.

5. What do you do on this site? Why do you like it better than other sites?
There is a big difference between a kid spending a lot of time on and a kid who frequently uses Snapchat. These questions let parents understand what is important to their kids and what they are drawn to online.

And remember to always ask: What do you do when someone you don't know approaches you online?

This question gives kids the opportunity to show their maturity and gives parents the chance to gauge their kids' level of exposure online. While you're not always going to take their word on it, this question sets a good baseline for parents to understand how they need to approach further conversations and develop appropriate parenting strategies.