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Are You Your Child's Friend? Keeping Your Kids Safe on Facebook


Social networking site, Facebook, is one of the top websites in the world.  Social media is a growing force in business, politics, and personal lives.  Some 500 million people have accounts, and among the profiles that you see are those of businesses, schools, and other organizations.  And you are likely to see a fair amount of children, as well.  While Facebook explicitly prohibits children under age 13 from having an account, there is no way to stop an enterprising child from adding a decade or so to his age.  Children of all ages, though, are vulnerable online.  How can parents protect their children from online predators and cyber bullying. 

Gaming site Roiworld conducted a survey on teen Facebook use and found that 78 percent of teens had an account.  Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for UK's communications industries, conducted a study that found millions of teenage girls were using sites like Facebook, Bebo, and MySpace with no appreciation of potential safety risks.  Ofcom's head of media literacy, Robin Blake, says, "There is an issue about parents who are allowing their children to go online without any supervision.  They need to recognize that their children are potentially at risk."

Ofcom's director of market research added, "There are a number of discrepancies between what children are doing and what parents believe they are doing."  And what are they doing?  Ofcom found that they are more concerned with making friends and being social than with being safe.  Fifty-nine percent of children who use Facebook do so to meet new friends.   This leads children to forgo privacy settings and publish personal details.  Ofcom and the Daily Mail Online found scores of teens who posted provocative poses and clothing, along with their full names, schools, dates of birth, and even home addresses.  Instead of limiting access to friends only, this information was accessible by any of the 500 million Facebook members.

Forty-one percent of children do not make their profiles private, and just under half said that their parents set rules for them regarding Facebook.  "I am single and it is nice to get the attention of men."  This Facebook user, age 15, says, "Some of the photos I post are a bit racy, but really they aren't meant to be that serious and a bit of a giggle."  But "racy" photos are a serious matter and can make this young girl, as well as millions of others targets for predators.

A spokesperson for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre said, "Where children go, sex offenders will follow.  The first step is getting parents to acknowledge and understand that risk." Having children acknowledge and understand that risk is perhaps even more important.

Facebook and other social networking sites are not all doom and gloom, though.  They can be beneficial to teenagers when used in an appropriate way.  A study conducted by the National Literacy Trust of 3001 Scottish and English students aged 9 to 16 found that social media, like Facebook, blogs, and even IMs and texts messages, may actually improve literacy rates and the ability to write clearly and concisely.  Of course, Facebook can be a useful tool for staying in touch with family and friends.  Banning Facebook is likely to backfire as a child can go anywhere with internet access and create a profile.  Rather, setting limits and rules is a more effective approach, as is understanding the technology. 

A recent study found that over half of parents friend their children.  Simply being there can be a powerful deterrent; who wants their mother to see their "racy" pictures.  Of course they could create another account, but being a presence is your teen's life - both in real-life and virtually - is crucial.  So is knowing enough about Facebook so they cannot put anything past you.

Time scheduling is important in keeping your child safe.  Set time limits for internet use to avoid late-night chats, when it is less likely that you will be awake.  This not only helps prevent predatory behavior, it allows your teen to get the sleep she needs.  Many safety experts, and, in fact, Facebook itself urges parents to know the passwords for their children's email and social media accounts.  You should have the same kind of access to your children's virtual friends as you would of her real-life friends. You wouldn't allow your 13 year old to go out at night with a stranger; doing the virtual equivalent should not be condoned either.

Talk about privacy settings.  If your child wants to open a Facebook account, do it with her or ask her for her password.  Check to make sure that it is viewable only by friends - and make sure her friends are really her friends.  Watch out for the friends list that stretches to hundreds or thousands of people.  Your child may not be as discriminating as she should be.  If there is anyone you do not know, ask your child about that person. 

It may be a good time to remind your child that what is put online has a nasty habit of staying there.  While a 13 year old may not be thinking about college yet, those closer to that age will have to think about admissions staff looking up their Facebook page or a future employer doing a quick check to see what you do behind the scenes.  This is increasingly common, and being half dressed or doing something inappropriate may come back to haunt you.  The rule should be that she should not post anything online that she wouldn't want you, a prospective employer, or a teacher to see.  This applies to her photos, comments, but also the comments she makes about other people.  Cyber bullying or taunting does not look good on a resume.

No one said raising a teen was easy, and the internet makes it more difficult in many ways.  The best protection you can offer is your presence.  Knowing what your child is doing and being aware of how and where she is doing it can make a world of difference.

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