Starting at age 13 when kids are officially old enough to join "mainstream" social networking sites like Facebook, parents have a series of decisions to make about how they will handle safe social networking with their kids. Some parents choose not to allow Facebook at all, or to have kids wait until they're a bit older, while others allow access with specific rules in place to protect kids. While younger kids may need a strictly controlled online environment to keep them safe, teens begin to be ready for more independence to prepare them for adulthood.
The teen years can be an invaluable opportunity for parents to teach their kids how to handle privacy, online safety, and reputation management before they head off to college. A carefully supervised and safeguarded Facebook account can be a great tool for parents to give kids more responsibility and let them learn how to handle privacy online. It can also provide insight into your child's life and friends and help you bring up important topics like dating, bullying and even drug and alcohol use when they might be relevant to your child.
Before you let your teen loose on a social network, though, it's time to set up a few ground rules. Here are some ideas we think are particularly helpful:
1. The Internet Is a Public Place: As many teenagers and recent college graduates have discovered, pictures, words, and records available online are available to everyone, including potential employers, college admittance committees, and parents. Emphasize with your child that the things they do, say, and document online form a fairly permanent record. Once something is up on the Internet, it can be nearly impossible to erase. This means kids should carefully consider whether they'd want a teacher, parent, or even grandparent to see what they've posted. If not, it's best not to put it up.
2. Parents and Family Are on Facebook Too: To help drive this message home, many parents require kids to "friend" parents and other adult relatives on Facebook so they can keep an eye on what's going on. Be aware that kids can alter privacy settings on their own account to prevent parents or relatives from seeing specific posts, so you may want to ask your kids to log in and show you their privacy settings. For a simpler way to keep tabs on kids' activities, try using parental control software like Net Nanny, which will show you Facebook activity, including wall posts, chat logs, friend requests, and messages. Be open about using the software, and make sure your kids know how and why you're keeping track of them online.
3. Real World Rules Apply: Just like you'd check in on your kids if they were hanging out with their friends at your house, check in on your kids on Facebook. Though they'll probably also have access to the site outside the house (at the library or in school, for example) consider keeping the computer your child uses to access Facebook out in a public part of the home, like a hallway or the family room, and try to be around when your child is online. If you're friends with your teen on Facebook (and you should be!) check in on their wall and profile regularly to see what your child and his or her friends are up to. Again, software like Net Nanny can help you with this task, sending email alerts when there's activity.
4. You Can Earn More Privileges: As kids get older and prove themselves by behaving responsibly online and at home, they should be able to earn more privileges, allowing you to take off the training wheels somewhat. While a 13-year-old might be able to access Facebook for a set time limit (parental control software can enforce limits like this), an older teen might have earned a longer window. Keep track of what your child does well and set out the path to earn more privileges. Ideally, by the time your child turns 18, he or she should feel confident in managing an online identity safely and responsibly.
5. Use Facebook as a Discussion-Starter: This point is for parents: if you see content or conversations you're worried about on your teen's page, use Facebook as a way to start the conversation. For example, you might say, "I saw on Facebook that your friend Jessica was talking about drinking at the party last weekend. How do you feel about that?" Parents can also use posts and conversations they see on Facebook for insight into cliques at school or the behavior of specific friends.Parental Controls