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A Parent's Guide to Twitter

A Parent

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Updated on Jul 26, 2010

Chances are your teen has a page on Facebook, the social-networking website with a massive following among users ages 9 to 99. And, chances are, if you've heard of Facebook, you've probably also heard of Twitter, another player in the ever-expanding fray of social networking platforms, micro-blogs and the like. Perhaps you have a Twitter account. But does your child have one too? And as a parent, should you be concerned about Twitter in the hands of your child?

The short answer: There’s no reason to ban your child from Twitter, but it's important that both of you understand its ins and outs, its pros and cons and how to use it properly.

How is Twitter Different From Facebook?

Twitter is similar to Facebook in that users can broadcast their thoughts — from the most inane to the most earth shattering — for the world to see. But there are a few key differences from Facebook:

  • On Twitter, users are limited to just 140 characters per post, where each post is usually referred to as a “tweet.” Web links in tweets are often shortened to fit within the allotted space.
  • On Facebook, users have to mutually agree to be “friends” before they can see each other’s whole profiles. On Twitter, each profile is public to everyone else unless the user decides to make it private. Twitter users have “followers,” or people who can see each tweet they post on a homepage. Unless a user sets up privacy settings, no one needs permission to follow anyone else. However, users can block people from seeing their tweets. If Twitter users follow each other, they can send each other private “Direct messages.” But essentially, Twitter profiles are completely public.
  • Twitter's content, and by default its users, can be more "viral" than Facebook's (aka can more easily be shared throughout the web and other technology platforms) and this is mostly due to the nature of Twitter's content — it's short, quick, super sharable (through "retweets") and essentially "portable."

While 14 percent of America’s 30 million Twitter users are 17 or younger, according to Web analysis firm Quantcast, the site is more popular among adults and has a more professional feel than Facebook. Faye Rogaski, founder of Socialsklz :-), which teaches communication skills for the modern age to young people, says teens often start Twitter accounts and then tend to forget about them.

Still, Twitter is potentially a means through which personal information can fall into the hands of people who shouldn’t have it. The key – especially for kids and teens – is to be smart and to be careful.

"Kids and teens often don’t have the maturity level to understand that what goes online stays online,” says Sue Scheff, founder of Parents’ Universal Resource Experts and co-author of Google Bomb.

You, Your Child, and the Account

If your child is interested in exploring the world of "tweets" and "retweets" and the like, Rogaski advises that you and your child set up the account together. The two of you should discuss who the child will follow and who can follow back. But how can you and your child proceed savvily from there. Here are some tips from the experts:

  • Remember that anything online is there forever. Anything negative associated with your name could keep you from getting into college or even from getting a job in the future. Help your child pick a username you’ll always be comfortable with.
  • Your child shouldn't tweet anything she wouldn’t say in person or to someone's face. Keep bad language and gossip out of your tweets.
  • Make sure you ok any photos your child wants to send or upload. 
  • Your child should only follow people she knows in real life and similarly, when it comes to her own followers, she shouldn't let anyone follow her who she doesn't know outside of the web.
  • It's important for your child to keep users from seeing her tweets unless they've been given specific permission. To do this, click on “Settings” from your account, click on “Account” and check the box saying “Protect my tweets.”
  • Your child should avoid tweeting her name, address or phone number. It's also important that she doesn't tweet where she is – which is becoming increasingly popular as more people use platforms like foursquare to show where they are at any given moment.
  • Only you and your child should know her password.
  • Make sure your child knows not to click on any link promising a quick way to get rich, a free prize or anything else that looks too good to be true. For example, in the Spring of 2010, a message circulating on Twitter said teen pop sensation Justin Bieber would give a signed iPad to the first 5,000 people who entered their phone numbers on a website. The tweet was a scam to charge everyone who gave away their phone numbers a monthly fee without their knowledge.

Some Final Dos and Don'ts

Do: Set up your own Twitter account, if you haven’t already. This is the best way to learn about how it works and how to use it properly.

Don’t: Ban your child from using Twitter. This will only make her more curious about it, Scheff says.

Do: Set up a Twilert account for your child’s Twitter handle. This service allows you to see what is being said about your child on Twitter.

Don’t: Follow your child or her friends without her permission. This will do nothing but show your child that you don’t trust her, Rogaski says. “They’ll find a way to unfollow you,” she says. “They’ll find a way to set up a new account.”

Rogaski says teaching your children how to use the Internet is as important as teaching them how to cross the street. And these days, learning how to use Twitter responsibly is part of that. “As a parent, you have to empower your kid with knowledge." The more you and your child know, the more you both can be smart and savvy social networkers.

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