Facebook and Twitter: New Rules for Kids

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Kids are drawn to the Internet like moths to a flame. Right now, few online attractions burn as brightly as Facebook and Twitter. It’s not uncommon for kids as young as 8 and 9 to have their own Facebook pages, and any kid with a smartphone or tablet (let alone access to a computer) can tweet up a storm.

Social media sites like these are great for building friendships, sharing photos, and keeping in touch, but there’s a risk factor involved as well. Just as in school or on the playground, a few bad apples can “spoil the barrel” for everyone.

Indeed, kids on social networks often face harassment, threats, bullying, and unwelcome communication from strangers. Imagine a scenario, for example, in which a schoolmate uses Facebook or Twitter to spread a rumor about your child. This isn’t just a whisper that gets passed from ear to ear. It’s a shout that’s instantly seen and heard by all.

Likewise, what’s to stop a bully from sending hurtful Twitter messages to or about your child? Or posting them on his or her Facebook page? The threats are real, and they can have tragic consequences.

That’s why parents need to develop a new rulebook for kids’ online activities, starting with Facebook and Twitter. By learning a few things about privacy and letting your kids know what’s okay and what’s not, you can greatly diminish the risks of social-network nastiness.

First things first: privacy. Kids are taught at an early age to “never go with strangers,” but in today’s world, that rule should be amended to include, “never communicate online with strangers.” Tell them not to respond to email, chat, or friend requests from people they don’t know. When in doubt, they should check with you first.

The other side of the privacy coin lies with each social network’s settings. Facebook, for example, allows users to determine who can see their personal information, who can post things on their timeline, who can send friend requests and direct messages, and so on. Consider setting all these options to “friends only,” meaning no one outside your child’s immediate, approved circle can interact with her. You can (and probably should) also disable Facebook’s location services, meaning status updates won’t include your child’s whereabouts.

Facebook Settings allow you to control who can contact you.

Twitter, meanwhile, offers options like Tweet Privacy, which protects the user’s tweets by making them visible only to approved individuals — not the world at large. Another setting worth enabling: “Always use HTTPS.” That tells Twitter to use a secure connection whenever possible, thus reducing the risk of the user’s account getting hacked.

Arguably the best thing you can do to keep your kids safe on Facebook and Twitter is to play an active role in both — “active” here meaning “silent observer.” If you don’t already have your own accounts, set them up — then “friend” and “follow” your kids. That way you can keep an eye on what they’re saying, what’s being said to them, and so on. In addition to friending and following your kids, look to parental-control software options that will notify you if your kids are sharing information that could get them into trouble.

What you don’t want to do is post your own messages on their timelines or reply to their tweets. That’s a surefire way to cause them embarrassment — and perhaps even invite the kind of harassment you’re hoping to prevent.

Finally, let your kids know what to do if they’re the victim of any kind of online threats, bullying, or the like — anything that makes them the least bit uncomfortable. Most importantly, they should tell you about it. Then they should block (meaning unfriend and/or unfollow) the person doing the harassing, without ever responding to or otherwise engaging that person.

Also, remind kids they should never share any personal information online, no matter how harmless it might seem. Likewise, no harassing other kids, no matter how harmless it might seem. What they think of as a joke or simple prank can come across as bullying —and that’s something no one “likes.”

This story, "Facebook and Twitter: New Rules for Kids" was originally published by BrandPost.