I am not even going to pretend to know the answer to this question, but I thought I'd bring it up and see if we could come up with anything. It's actually a bunch of questions I've gotten from readers with children of different ages, but it all seems to be part of the same issue of keeping our kids safe on the internet.
I got a couple of questions about sites like Club Penguin, in which the kids create characters and their characters can interact with characters created by other players. My 6 1/2-year-old plays CP, and I have to say that it looks safe to me. The things the characters can say to each other are pretty locked down, and you can report other players for saying things they shouldn't.
Again, the real key seems to be keeping the computer in a common area so you can monitor what your kid is doing, and so your child knows you know what's going on. Talking a lot about what's OK and what's not helps, too. My son has clicked off games he's run into a few times because they had shooting or other things we've talked about not being appropriate for him.
The tougher questions I got were from moms of kids old enough to be on Myspace and Facebook. I'm not on Myspace, so I don't know all the intricacies, but it looks like it's easier to run into trouble there, but also easier for parents to monitor. Your page is just kind of out in the open so anyone can stumble on it and talk to you, but at the same time this means all your business is posted right there for your parents to see.
Facebook is trickier. In some ways it's way safer, because your profile is locked down (assuming you set your privacy settings!) so only people you add to your friends list can see anything about you. But there are also ways to communicate privately with other members on your friends list, so that there's no external evidence of that. One mom who wrote me said that she joined FB to monitor her child on it, and her child knows that and they're FB friends, and she regularly monitors her child's wall. I think that's excellent communication, BUT 1) her child could have her on "limited profile" so she doesn't see everything the child has posted, and 2) no one sees the private messages people send each other. (And, thinking about some private message conversations I've been party to, well, yeah. There's all sorts of stuff you can't see by looking at people's walls.) So there's no way to know how much she's really seeing of what her daughter does on Facebook. As long as she understands that, it OK.
My 15-year-old cousin is on FB and I know I pop over there every other day just to make sure nothing untoward is happening on her wall (her parents aren't on FB so I feel like I need to watch out for her), but I also know there''s all kinds of stuff I can't see.
I think the trick, though, is that your kids know that you care. And that, yes, they can sneak around you and do stuff they're not supposed to (like we all did), but that you are there trying to keep them safe. The same mom who joined FB also has an agreement with her daughter, so her daughter has written down her usernames and passwords in a sealed envelope just in case her parents need them. That, I think, is an awesome level of trust, on both sides–that the child deserves privacy but her parents need to be able to protect her.
What do you guys think? I'd especially love to hear from parents with kids on social networking sites who are willing to talk about the process you went through with your kids to establish guidelines that respect kids' privacy but also adults' responsibility.