On the way to school I asked my son how many of his classmates were on Facebook. “Um… ALL of them!” He is the youngest in his class, and still twelve years old. For a few more months, I get to blame the Facebook rules for not allowing him to open an account because users of the site must be thirteen. However, my time is running out. “The first thing I’m going to do when I wake up on my birthday is sign up for Facebook,” my son tells me. That gives me six months to nail down a strategy.
Although I work, play and promote online, when it comes to dealing with my own children interacting in cyberspace, I lack confidence about my ability to monitor without being overbearing, to protect without smothering. Things change quickly, and every day there seems to be a new internet-enabled threat. Still, I’m not willing to forbid my kids from using social networking.
Sharon Miller Cindrich is a mother of two, and author of A Smart Girl’s Guide to the Internet. She also provides resources to help parents manage technology on her website, PluggedInParent.com. She says that kids can easily circumvent parents’ oversight, which is why it is so important for us to build trust and start conversations about things like Facebook. “The most important message kids should get is that they need to be mature and responsible online, and talking to kids about that face-to-face is critical.”
Be a Friend
A recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep found that more than a third of teens whose parents are on Facebook are not actually friends with them on the site. Don’t fall into this group. Make sure your kids understand that accepting your friend request on Facebook is not optional. Just as you wouldn’t allow them to interact unsupervised in real life, you don’t want them roaming around online without your guidance, either. Most kids won’t want mom and dad watching their online interactions, and this is the perfect opportunity to discuss how everything they do online is not only traceable, but also permanent.
To take full advantage of being your child’s Facebook friend, you’ll need to keep up with the technology. It is one more thing to add to your parenting to-do list, but this one is critical and you must be proactive because Facebook site functioning changes often. Don’t let this overwhelm you. It’s not that complicated, just sort of annoying—like when they move your crackers at the grocery store. One of the most important aspects you’ll want to understand is privacy.
Manage Privacy Settings
There is very little privacy online, but we can protect all that is available. Instead of fighting this new social norm, parents can learn to manage it and teach children to as well. In their Parents Guide to Internet Safety, the FBI suggests that parents maintain access to children’s accounts. They also point out that chat rooms are often prowled by computer-sex offenders. The use of chat rooms, in particular, should be heavily monitored. And while parents can and should utilize technology to monitor kids’ online life, they should never rely completely on these tools.
Keeping tabs on privacy settings is an ongoing process, not just a one-time set-up. Just as Facebook’s policies change over time, the types of things your child shares will change as well. To complicate matters, Facebook allows users to create groups and share certain items and conversations with these select groups, while they are kept hidden from the view of others. By establishing your role as arbiter of the privacy settings you’ll have a better understanding of how your child is using groups to communicate privately with his friends and whether or not you want to allow this.
Lurk & Listen
The internet poses many dangers for kids, but things that they or their friends say on Facebook can also give you unprecedented insights into their world. When your child hosts a party at your house, you don’t hang around and join the conversation; you pop in periodically to provide snacks and make sure no one is naked.
Strive for the same level of presence on Facebook, minus the snacks. Think of your child’s online interactions as an opportunity to observe them in their “natural habitat.” But “parents should not spend a lot of time commenting on their kids’ Facebook,” Cindrich says. “Especially if kids are resistant to being friends with them. “
Monitor Mobile Devices
Most of us have heard the advice to keep the computer in a public area of the home, simply because it is too easy for teens and tweens to be lured into risky behaviors when they are unsupervised. But “computers” aren’t the only way we get online today. Mobile devices like phones and iPods often have internet access. Even if you don’t purchase a data plan, many of the newer devices can access any open wifi network. Even if you have a password on your home network, your neighbor might not. One way to keep kids safe from online manipulators and remove the temptation to text their friends late at night is to have them turn in their phones and iPods before bed.
Create a Contract
Writing things down makes them clear. Some families find using a contract is an effective way to make sure there are no misunderstandings about expectations for behavior and consequences. Cindrich agrees that a written document can help. “Set time limits and boundaries and make sure the consequences for breaking the house rules are very clear before you even get started.” Vanessa Jensen, a pediatric psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, agrees and says parents should tell kids at the outset, “If you have a Facebook account, you’re going to have to friend me and I want to know. I want to know what’s
happening. I’m your parent. That’s part of how we do things.”
Facebook Etiquette 101
If parents want to be Facebook friends, they need to keep a low profile. That is not to say that parents can never interact with their children in social media, but some rules of thumb could prevent a world of embarrassment andhurt feelings.
• Resist the urge to comment on your child’s page. If you see something you’d like to discuss, do it face-to-face.
• If you must post photos of the child, don’t tag them without prior approval. Tagging a photo automatically posts the photo to the child’s Facebook profile page. What you find adorable may be painfully embarrassing to an adolescent.
• Do not send friend requests to your child’s friends, and do not accept friend requests from them unless you have cleared it with your child first.
• Use the information you gather on Facebook carefully. Criticizing your child or her friends based on status updates or photos is not a good idea. You will probably use your new knowledge to make decisions about who your kids spend time with in real life, but they don’t need to know that.
•PluggedInParent.com: Sharon Cindrich’s website covers all kind of family and technology issues, including social media.
• The Parent’s Guide to Texting, Facebook, and Social Media: Understanding the Benefits and Dangers of Parenting in a Digital World, by Shawn Marie Edgington. Published in April 2011, this is possibly the most current, comprehensive, and authoritative resource available on this topic.
• Free monitoring software:
For general monitoring of your child’s online interactions, check out the free software at k9webprotection.com.
Lela Dason is the author of Blacklisted from the PTA (Jupiter Press, July 2011). Her writing is featured regularly in family and parenting magazines throughout the United States and Canada. www.leladavidson.com