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08 Dec, Thursday
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Montreal Families

Facebook expert offers tips to parents

I lied about my daughter’s age to get her a Facebook account. This frankly embarrassing fact is probably not the most auspicious way to begin an article about privacy and safety on this popular social networking website.

In theory anyway, the age restrictions Facebook imposes — users are supposed to be at least 13 — are designed to prevent younger kids from using the site to broadcast information about themselves (although why anyone would think a 13-year-old has achieved even modest levels of good judgement and rational thought is beyond me). However, research in the UK indicates a growing percentage of users are actually under 12, and anecdotal evidence suggests there are plenty of elementary school-aged children signing up.

But my foray into fudging my daughter’s age (she’s almost 11) was motivated by a belief that she is a responsible and level-headed kid. I also had a real desire to understand why the site appealed to her and her peers. I was curious how she intended to use it and felt encouraged by her willingness to accept my strict limitations.

I also figured that starting this process with her when she is young enough to learn about acceptable and respectful use of the site from her mom was worthwhile. She’ll soon be of an age when kids are more likely to accept information from their peers rather than their parents. I also recognized that online interaction is going to be an integral part of her life, and I wanted to be a part of shaping her understanding of it.

Having set up the account, we started looking at her schoolmates’ pages (thus proving I wasn’t the only parent willing to fib about age). What surprised me was how few of these kids had privacy controls in place, which means that the information they’ve posted is, indeed, being broadcast to the world.

Activate privacy settings

Lisa McKenzie, a Montreal mom, has recently co-authored a book entitled Facebook Guide for Parents. She and her co-writers (Francine Allaire, Cindy Ratzlaff, Karmen Reed and Kathryn Rose), spent hours exploring privacy settings and researching some of the pitfalls of this social networking site. McKenzie says many parents simply don’t know enough to help children stay safe on Facebook. “Parents are sometimes very intimidated by the technology or they don’t think they need to be involved,” she says.

But parents should be very aware of what’s happening on their child’s Facebook page.  Unless specific privacy settings have been activated, posts made to a Facebook “wall” (like an electronic bulletin board), can be read by anyone. Ditto for photos that kids upload to the site. McKenzie suggests that the first thing any new user should do is go to privacy settings and make sure they are limited to the “only friends” option. This means only people your child (and you!) have approved and accepted as friends will be able to see your child’s Facebook page.

Teens and preteens may think that the option to allow “friends of friends” access to their page is OK. It’s not. The “friend of friends” option opens up a young person’s information to hundreds of other users they don’t know. McKenzie says that privacy settings should be checked every month or so. Facebook regularly changes or adds options, without formally notifying users.

McKenzie also cautions against answering all the questions on the sign-up page. “Just because there is a form to fill out doesn’t mean you need to fill in everything.” Parents should make sure their kids don’t ever put down the name of their school, and may even want to leave out their hometown.

“You also don’t need to put down your birthday,” advises McKenzie, citing the growing problem of identity theft. Kids (and adults) who like to get birthday wishes from friends might keep the day and month but change the year. And for those kids under 13 (ahem), they’ll need to do some quick math anyway.

And while many parents worry about online predators, McKenzie says that this risk, while real, is small. “Cyber-bullying is much more likely to be a threat,” she adds. And she asks parents to consider the very real possibility that their child may not just be at risk of being a victim of this virtual bullying, but may possibly be the bully.

“Communication on Facebook is more impulsive and kids don’t always realize that it is public. The first conversation you should have with your children about social networking is that they need to be respectful of people’s feelings.”

Pre-teens and teens don’t always understand the implications of Facebook as a public record. A comment that might have been tossed out and forgotten in the schoolyard leaves a written trace online, and that can cause serious trouble.

McKenzie says there’s no particular age when kids suddenly become ready for a Facebook account. “It depends on the maturity of the child and their relationship with their parent. Some 12-year-olds may be able to handle it but some 16-year-olds may not.”

She says parents should insist upon access to their child’s password when they are younger, but concedes that some 15- or 16-year-olds may insist upon their right to privacy. It’s up to the parent to decide when this privilege has been earned. This also means that parents should take it upon themselves to learn about the virtual worlds in which their kids are immersed.

Video tutorials are helpful

Armed with all of these tips, I spent 20 minutes setting up the site with my daughter (and then with her previously disinterested twin sister, who figured that the Farmville game on Facebook actually looked like a lot of fun). My conditions were that she link her account to my email (so I get to screen all her notifications), she must clear each new “Facebook Friend” with me if they are not in her grade at her school, that she put the privacy controls on the highest setting and leave out all biographical information other than her name. We made one instructive mistake when we searched for one of her close friends and then clicked on a tab asking to be her friend, only to realize that this person was a total stranger who coincidentally had the exact same name as her schoolmate. Oops. Let’s call that a teachable moment. We withdrew the request.

The Facebook Guide for Parents ($19.99 US) offers all of these tips and more, including some easy-to-follow video tutorials for parents unsure of how to navigate the site.

McKenzie was quick to remind me of one final rule as I was poised to become “friends” with my daughters online. She suggests parents be very careful to behave themselves online and never, ever humiliate their kids with comments on their walls, or tag embarrassing childhood photos best left in albums.

Some tips and tricks to keep your kids safe on FB

It can’t be said often enough: Facebook can make intimate details public. Parents concerned that they are infringing on their children’s privacy should consider that online freedom is a privilege kids must earn by demonstrating responsibility. Here are a few extra ways to keep your kids (and yourself) safe:

  • Teach your kids to be wary of using FB applications. When a child uses these applications, that information may be broadcast on his or her FB page. To avoid some of the more embarrassing ones (like the bizarre “Having Sex” application), teach your kids to avoid clicking on anything that they don’t want advertised to every friend on their feed. (If they do click on an application, they should immediately visit their own profile page where they can quickly remove  the news with one click). 
  • Keep contact information private by carefully checking out FB’s  privacy settings for “Contact Information.” You can restrict who sees an email address, phone number, website, hometown, etc. 
  • Join Facebook yourself, if you aren’t on it already. Familiarize yourself with the site and become “friends” with your child. Older teens may balk at this, but it should be an absolute requirement for pre-teens, tweens and younger teens who want to join.
  • Remove your children’s Facebook profile (and your own) from public search engines. Since the default on the site is to allow this, you will need to go to the Privacy options page (under Account) and uncheck the box next to “Create a public search listing for me and submit it for search engine indexing.”
  • People often “tag” photos on FB, which means identifying people in the pictures. To avoid having tagged photos be seen by strangers, go to your profile privacy page and click on the setting “Photos Tagged of You”. Select the option which says “Customize.” A box will pop up asking you who you want to allow to see photos others might have posted and tagged with your name. The safest setting is “Only Me,” but you can also choose Select Friends, and then enter the names of your most trusted friends who will be allowed to see them. This would be a good place to add mom or dad’s name to your kids’ lists, so you get to see what pictures others post of them.
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