01/31/2013 11:13 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

How to Talk to Your Kids About Their Online Life

With 1.6 million children running away from their homes each year, it's crucial that parents understand the critical need to monitor their children's social media use, keeping track of who they are talking to online, what they are sharing and when. For many parents, the main barrier to monitoring their children's online life is not just how to start, but how to explain it. Talking to your kids about monitoring their online life is like any other "talk." It varies widely based on their age and if/how you have spoken about it in the past. A conversation with a teenager that you are just starting to monitor is much different that a conversation with a 6-year-old who you have always checked up on.

For young children, it is about setting things up properly from the get-go. Young children's interaction with technology is at its highest rate ever. Screen time and access to information is unprecedented and with that comes the very real need to monitor how your children interact with technology and the outside world.

If you have a conversation with your children very early in their technology use, the hurdles to their understanding will be very small. They expect you to monitor their activities and do not have the same sense of independence that you find in teenagers.

For older children, you need to be sensitive to the changing dynamic. It can take time to introduce a new precedent, especially if you haven't spoken about it before. You have to explain why you decided to make this change. Be honest -- if it is based on behavior you have observed, say so. But be careful not to frame it as a punishment. Punishments end, and watching out for your kids online shouldn't.

Explain that the Internet is the opposite of private. Once you post something, it can live in digital cyberspace forever, not to mention a friend's hard drive or cell phone. The whole point of global connectivity is that information is everywhere. If your children don't want you -- or grandma, their soccer coach or their secret crush -- to read something or see a picture of it, it most certainly doesn't belong on the Internet. Posting online has real-world consequences.

Explain to your children plainly that, like any other time of their life, your role as a parent is to understand where they are going and who they meet while they are there. Have open and frank conversations with them about the parental controls you have set up on the cable box/ laptop/ iPad and why they are there. Explain that they exist both to keep them away from areas of the Internet that are not yet appropriate for them and also to limit who they engage with -- just as you would when they were at the park.

Set real, physical boundaries to technology -- laptops and tablets should be kept in public, high-traffic areas of your home. Explain that this isn't just to make sure they go to sleep at night (though that's certainly part of it), but also because the Internet is a big place and you like to be able to see where they are at any given moment of surfing.

To solidify your conversation, have your child sign an Internet safety contract that covers all the guidelines that you set in place. People tend to respect contracts and this can provide another layer of consequence. Additionally, when these guidelines are in writing, everyone can agree on what was said. Memories of conversations have a history of shifting depending on situations.

As with any other parenting duty, talking with you kids about how you plan to monitor their online behavior can either be fairly straightforward or significantly more challenging. Ignoring the problem of Internet safety is not going to make it go away. Have the talk.