How to Keep Your Kids Safe on Facebook

The Basics: Protecting Personal Information

Even with Facebook's privacy policy for minors, a child's personal information is still widely on display. A young person's Facebook account is just the beginning of their online footprint, and they need to take that fact seriously, since it can affect their reputation today and potentially come into play later in life when they're applying for college and for jobs.

Personal privacy
Facebook public-policy representative Nicky Jackson Colaco advises parents to sit down with their kids and talk about the importance of protecting one's online identity. Maintaining open communication with your children is the key to understanding exactly how they're using Facebook.

“I'd never send my son onto the football field without pads and knowledge of the game,” Colaco says, “and it's exactly the same with Facebook.”

If you have a Facebook profile, consider sending your child a friend request--not necessarily as a spying tool, but to remind your child of your own online presence. If you don't have a Facebook account, ask your child to show you their profile. It helps to familiarize yourself as much as possible with the site's privacy controls and other settings, because the more you know about Facebook, the better equipped you can be if something serious ever arises.

It's also a good idea to take a look at your child's photos and wall posts to make sure they are age appropriate. Remind your child that the Internet in general, but especially Facebook, is not a kids-only zone, and that adults can see what's on their profile as well. Maintaining an appropriate online presence as a teenager will help your child build a respectable online footprint. Remember: The Internet never forgets.

If your kid really has something to hide, they might make a Facebook profile behind your back, or have one account that's parent-friendly and a separate account for their friends. If they show you a profile that seems skimpy on content, that could be a red flag. That's where PC and Web-monitoring tools could come into play (see the "Monitoring Behavior" section on the next page).

Finally, go over Facebook's privacy settings with your child, and show them how to activate the highest level of security. Emphasize that Facebook is a place for friends and not strangers, and then change their profile to “friends only.” Again, remind your child to be wary of what they post in their status updates, since oversharing online can lead to consequences in the real world.

“As the site gets bigger, it's important to have everyone working together--us, parents, kids, our safety advisory board--to make sure the site remains a safe place,” Colaco says.

Cyberbullying

The suicides of 13-year-old Megan Meier and 15-year-old Phoebe Prince have brought media attention to the potentially devastating effects of cyberbullying. A study performed as part of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a division of the Pew Research center, reports that “32 percent of online teens have experienced some sort of harassment via the Internet,” including private material being forwarded without permission, threatening messages, and embarrassing photos posted without their consent.

Report/Block this Person
The best way to deal with a cyberbully is to report them and block them from your kid's Facebook profile.
Research performed at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center shows that, while adults are inclined to moderate their online behavior, children and teens are “significantly more willing to 'go further' and to type very shocking things that they would never say in person… Kids believe that online statements simply 'don't count' because they’re not being said to someone's face.”

Because young people tend to believe that they aren’t accountable for their online actions, Facebook becomes a convenient place to target victims for bullying. Although you can't do much to prevent your child from being bullied online, you can help them end the harassment if it starts.

The MARC Center has several guides offering tips on how to handle cyberbullying, and all of them start with communicating directly with your child--don't be afraid to get involved. If you think your child is being bullied, advise your child to spend less time on the site in question, or flag the bully by notifying the Website. If the behavior is also happening at school, notify the school's administrators so that they, too, can get involved.

Facebook also makes it easy to report harassment issues, and encourages users to do so. But what if you find out that your child is the one doing the bullying? Both scenarios are possible, and both should be dealt with.

In a New York Times Q&A session on cyberbullying, expert Elizabeth K. Englander of the MARC Center addresses an approach that parents should take if they discover that their child is the bully. She first recommends that you discuss with your child why cyberbullying is hurtful, and bring up some of the tragic cases of teen suicide related to online harassment. Try to understand that your child could be reacting to pressure from friends, or that your child may be retaliating against someone who hurt their feelings in a similar manner. Although such circumstances don’t excuse the behavior, learning about them could bring a larger issue to your attention.

Finally, establish a set of rules for your teen to follow when using Facebook and other social networking sites, and monitor your child’s usage, perhaps even placing a daily time limit.

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