By now, parents are probably well aware of Facebook, the popular social networking site that allows users age 13 and over to register as members. If you've got teens or tweens, they're likely on it ... and you might even be too.
There are over 400 million active users around the world using Facebook to maintain personal profiles, add friends, post links and random thoughts, and share photos and videos. And according to a February report by the Pew Research Center, over 73% of American teens who are online now use social networking websites. That's a lot of people putting details about their lives on the Internet. And new changes to Facebook are exposing more personal information than ever before.
So, what does a parent need to know about Facebook? Here's what every parent should know about privacy settings, preventing cyberbullying, and the do's and don'ts of becoming a Facebook parent.
Back in the "olden days" of Facebook (circa 2004), members had to be college students. In 2005, Facebook membership was opened up to high school students, and then on to anyone over age 13 with a valid email address. Increasing levels of exposure of personal information have accompanied the site's expansion. For instance, the newest Facebook revamp makes it virtually impossible to make details such as gender, profile picture, and "likes and interests" from being displayed publicly. And that's for the people who know how to control the confusing privacy settings that Facebook offers.
A recent Consumer Reports survey found that 23 percent of Facebook users either did not know the site offered privacy controls or chose not to use them. Translation? A whole lot of people are exposing everything from last night's party photos to their phone numbers and location, and many of those users are teenagers.
Why does it matter? For one thing, recent studies show that some college admissions officers use Facebook to take a peek at prospective students, which means that those incriminating photos aren't just embarrassing: they could actually hurt your child's chances at future success.
It may sound dire, but there are steps you can take to make sure you and your child are safer on Facebook. It all comes down to the privacy settings that control who can see what.
Privacy Settings 101
Believe it or not, it takes about 50 clicks to make you or your child's profile as private as it can be. Want to go the extra mile? To edit your privacy settings, log in to your Facebook account or work with your child on his account. Select "Account" in the upper right hand corner of the page, and click on "Privacy Settings." Once you've got that in front of you, follow these steps:
- Personal Information and Posts Select "Only Friends" for each item to make sure no one else can view information on your bio, birthday, religious and political views and more. Make Photo Albums viewable to only friends or customize further by specifying individuals who can or cannot view the album.
- Contact Information Select "Only Friends" for each item to make sure no one else can view information on your phone number, email, address and more. You may want to select "Friends of Friends" or "Only Friends" under "Add me as a friend" and "Send me a message."
- Friends, Tags and Connections Select "Only Friends" for each item to make sure no one else can view information on your relationships, education, hometown and more.
- Applications and Websites Facebook can share some of your information with other websites, and Facebook applications can also utilize details about you. Under "What your friends can share about you," make sure no boxes are selected. Select "Only Friends" for "Activity on Applications and Games Dashboards." Disallow the "Instant Personalization Pilot Program" by unclicking the box that would "allow select partners to instantly personalize their features with my public information when I first arrive on their websites."
- Search Edit whether your profile can be found through search, both on Facebook and through web search.
- Block List Block individuals from interacting with you, if necessary.
Select "Preview my post" to see how your profile appears to others. According to Facebook, name, gender, profile picture, and pages that you "like" are considered public information and are impossible to hide.
Managing Facebook privacy settings may feel like a full time job, but what happens between "friends" on Facebook can be just as daunting to a parent. If your child is on Facebook, chances are that photos, videos, comments and links are flying between her and her friends on a daily basis. Bullying, teasing and flirting can be magnified in this setting, and social pressures can make it hard to say when enough is enough. Here's what kids need to know about protecting themselves on Facebook, and how parents can help.
- Block users who are bullying or harassing you through your privacy settings. If someone is making your child uncomfortable, put your foot down and insist that they be blocked or at least "unfriended."
- Limit who can comment on photos or view posts to friends who won't make hurtful comments or share your information with others. Parents, it may be hard for your teen to "unfriend" certain people, but that doesn't mean they should have free rein to mock or intimidate her online. Remind your child that she can customize photos and wall posts on a case-by-case basis to specify who can or can't view them.
- Don't put anything up that could come back to haunt you. Racy photos and pictures of alcohol and drug use should not go online, period.
- Allow a parent to be your "friend" on Facebook. Your child may resist the idea of letting Mom view his online activity, but as more and more adults join the ranks of Facebook users, its not all that uncommon to network with family members as well as friends.
Do's and Don'ts for Parents on Facebook
- Don't "friend" your child's Facebook friends unless you actually know them and have a friendly relationship.
- Don't comment on everything your child posts. It's embarrassing for your child, and it's just not "cool"!
- Don't obsess. Your child's personal life is his own, and unless something inappropriate is going on, it's not your business to find out who "Veronica" is and what she looks like.
- Do keep offline communication going strong. Facebook is not a replacement for good old-fashioned conversation, and chances are you'll learn a lot more about your child through talking than online guesswork.
- Do create your own network by connecting with friends, finding old buddies from school, and friending colleagues and co-workers.
- Do sign up. If you're not a registered member of Facebook, you might consider becoming one. It's a great way to network, socialize, keep in touch, and yes, keep an eye on what matters most: your child's well being.