Get Off to a Good Start on Facebook
When a quarter of the people online are also on Facebook, it’s no surprise children want to be there too. Getting a first Facebook page has become a rite of passage, just like picking out a first backpack or having a first sleepover.
The official age to use Facebook is 13, but younger kids often ask for their own pages. How young is too young? Research can’t answer that. Scientists don’t yet know how the breezy and often-superficial messages typical of social networks are changing adult relationships, much less those of children.
Teaching kids to responsibly use social media is easier if parents have experience with it. If you don’t already have a Facebook page, set one up before your child asks. Then you can explain the difference between sending a private message to a friend and posting on a more widely viewed wall.
Deciding when your child is ready for an account is tricky. Younger children are more likely to welcome your help setting up the page, where you can establish the strictest level of friends-only privacy, choose a good password, and insist you are included on the friend list. These safeguards let you keep an eye on your child’s online behavior with friends.
Setting up a Facebook page for a child under 13 forces you to lie about age — not an ideal way to introduce responsible online behavior. One alternative for young children is Togetherville.com, where kids play games and have limited conversations with people in a parent’s Facebook network. Other sites, such as Habbo.com and Imbee.com, are specifically designed for preteens. But most kids won’t be interested unless their friends join too.
When you decide your child is ready for a Facebook page, visit the Parent Section of the Facebook Safety Center (www.facebook.com/help/?safety=parents). This section explains how to use the site’s safety features.
Once your child joins the social networking world, emphasize the following:
No contact information – Facebook wants you to use your real name so you can connect with people who know you in real life. For younger children, finding high school classmates is irrelevant, so it may be better to use a first name and last initial. Other contact information should be taboo. No one of any age should post an address, e-mail or phone number on Facebook.
Age limits for friends – At first, approve all friend requests to be sure your child’s network is limited to children he or she knows in real life. Once your child adds adults, even relatives, he or she will have access to their pages. Think carefully about whether you want your child to read political rants from his uncle or see photos from an older cousin’s spring break. As a child demonstrates maturity, the kids-only rule may loosen, but go through the friend list periodically to ask how people got there.
Permission for photos – You’ll want to approve every posted photo at first, including the profile picture. Remind experienced users that they shouldn’t post salacious or foolish photos. They also shouldn’t post, much less tag, photos of others without their permission, especially if the photo shows something that might be regarded as funny by some and humiliating by others.
Skepticism about apps – Games and quizzes are part of the fun on Facebook. Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t supervise apps, so signing up for one may expose your child — and his friends — to spam or viruses. Encourage younger kids to ask you before accepting an app invitation. With older kids, periodically visit the “Applications and Websites” link at the bottom of the Privacy Settings page. Clicking on that link brings up a list of apps your child has downloaded and gives you a chance to “Remove unwanted or spammy applications.”
What would Grandma say? – It’s hard for young children to wrap their minds around the idea that what they post on Facebook might make it hard for them to get into college or land a good job. Ask your child to imagine what Grandma would think of a post to cut down on meanness and bragging about inappropriate behavior.
Facebook time – Like television, Facebook can consume hours of time without much to show except a sluggish metabolism. Instead of giving kids unlimited access, set up specific times for social networking with clear and well-enforced starts and stops.
As children get older they can earn more freedom and privacy on Facebook by demonstrating responsible behavior. You’ll want to continue talking about social networking so your child will feel free to tell you about any problems. Discuss the relationship between network size and what a child shares. Your child may trust close friends with details about a new crush, a family vacation or an upcoming birthday. Sharing that information with a wider network may make your family an easy target for bullies or criminals, including identity thieves.
Helping your child learn to responsibly use social media is like teaching her to ride a bike safely or answer the phone properly. The difference is that what your child says and does online can and probably will follow him into adulthood. That is a huge incentive for parents to help their kids master the nuances of social networking right from the start.
Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 20 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.