by Lela Davidson
He is the youngest in his class, and still 12 years old. For a few more months, I get to blame the Facebook rules for not allowing him to open an account because users must be 13. However, my time is running out. “The first thing I’m going to do when I wake up on my birthday is sign up for Facebook,” my son tells me. That gives me only a few months to nail down a strategy.
Although I work, play and promote online, when it comes to dealing with my own children interacting in cyberspace, I lack confidence. How do I monitor without being overbearing, protect without smothering? Every day there seems to be a new Internet-enabled threat. Still, I’m not willing to forbid my kids from using social networking.
Kids can easily circumvent parents’ oversight, says Sharon Miller Cindrich, a mother of two and author of A Smart Girl’s Guide to the Internet. She also provides resources to help parents manage technology on her website, PluggdInParent.com. She says it’s important for us to build trust and start conversations about things like Facebook, adding, “The most important message kids should get is that they need to be mature and responsible online, and talking to kids about that face to face is critical.”
A recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep found that more than a third of teens whose parents are on Facebook are not actually friends with them on the site. Don’t fall into this group. Make sure your kids understand that accepting your friend request on Facebook is optional. Just as you wouldn’t allow them to interact unsupervised in real life, you don’t want them roaming around online without your guidance, either. Most kids won’t want mom and dad watching their online interactions, and this is the perfect opportunity to discuss how everything they do online is not only traceable, but also permanent.
To take full advantage of being your child’s Facebook friend, you’ll need to keep up with the technology. It is one more thing to add to your parenting to-do list, but this one is critical and you must be proactive because Facebook site functioning changes often. Don’t let this overwhelm you. It’s not that complicated, just annoying – like when they move your crackers at the grocery store. One of the most important aspects you’ll want to understand is privacy.
There is very little privacy online, but we can protect all that is available. Instead of fighting this new social norm, parents can learn to manage it and teach children to as well. In their Parents Guide to Internet Safety, the FBI suggests that parents maintain access to children’s accounts. They also point out that chat rooms are often prowled by sex offenders. The use of chat rooms, in particular, should be heavily monitored. And while parents can and should use technology to monitor kids’ online life, they should never rely completely on these tools.
Keeping tabs on privacy settings is an ongoing process, not just a one-time setup. Just as Facebook’s policies change over time, the types of things your child shares will change as well. To complicate matters, Facebook allows users to create groups and share certain items and conversations with these groups, while they are kept hidden from the view of others. By establishing your role as arbiter of the privacy settings, you’ll have a better understanding of how your child is using groups to communicate privately with his friends and whether you want to allow this.
“Facebook conversations very much reflect those on the bus, at the lunch table and in the locker room,” says Cindrich. The Internet poses many dangers for kids, but things that they or their friends say on Facebook can also give you unprecedented insights into their world. When your child hosts a party at your house, you don’t hang around and join the conversation; you pop in periodically to provide snacks and make sure no one is misbehaving.
Strive for the same level of presence of Facebook, minus the snacks. Think of your child’s online interactions as an opportunity to observe them in their “natural habitat.” You don’t have to match their level of online engagement. “Parents should not spend a lot of time commenting on their kids’ Facebook,” Cindrich says, “especially if kids are resistant to being friends with them.”
Most of us have heard the advice to keep the computer in a public area of the home, simply because it is too easy for teens and tweens to be lured into risky behaviors when they are unsupervised. But “computers” aren’t the only way we get online today.
Mobile devices like phones and iPods often have Internet access. Even if you don’t purchase a data plan, many of the newer devices can access any open Wi-Fi network. You might have a password on your home network, but your neighbor might not. One way to keep kids safe from online manipulators and remove the temptation to text their friends late at night is to have them turn in their phones and iPods before bed.
Writing things down makes them clear. Some families find using a contract is an effective way to make sure there are no misunderstandings about expectations for behavior and consequences.
Cindrich agrees that a written document can help. “Set time limits and boundaries and make sure the consequences for breaking the house rules are very clear before you even get started.”
Vanessa Jensen, a pediatric psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, agrees and says parents should tell kids at the outset, “If you have a Facebook account, you’re going to have to friend me and I want to know what’s happening. I’m your parent. That’s part of how we do things.”
It’s easy to panic over the pace of technology, the access our children have to all kinds of information, and the access others have to our kids. Listen to your children, read up on the latest gadgets and sites, and talk to other parents every chance you get.
And remember that you’re the parent, and as such you control your child’s resources and, to a great degree, how he spends his time. Phones and computers do pose a challenge, but you can use them to your advantage as well. After all, the threat of taking the phone away can often be the best leverage you’ve got.
If parents want to be Facebook friends, they need to keep a low profile. That is not to say that parents can never interact with their children in social media, but some rules of thumb could prevent a world of embarrassment and hurt feelings.