For a long time, my son was busting to have his own Facebook page. For a long time, I refused. “You’re too young,” I said. “Facebook is for grown-ups,” I said. “Go climb a tree,” I said.
But then, around the time he turned 12, I waved the white flag. One day while I was updating my own Facebook page, he made his case yet again and things took a different turn. “All my friends are on it,” he insisted (as he usually did) but instead of dismissing that as rubbish spin (as I usually did), I decided to call his bluff. “OK, come sit down and let’s see exactly who you know on Facebook.”
It turns out he wasn’t bluffing. There were indeed a couple of dozen kids he knew with their own Facebook pages. We couldn’t see much of their profiles because their privacy settings were all set to high, limiting what strangers could access. I was impressed by that and decided to set up a page for him on the spot. Together.
He was a bit startled by this. “Really?” he exclaimed. “You’re really going to let me?”
“Sure,” I replied. ”Let’s do it.”
And we did. Albeit with a raft of rules. More about them shortly.
In the months since that day, Facebook has exploded among teens and tweens as they discover the benefits of social networking in their tens of thousands. Whether you like it or not, hanging out virtually on Facebook has replaced hanging out in the street, like we used to do. And it’s pointless to fight it.= display_ad('x18', 'hidden-xs hidden-md mm_incontent', 'MM In Content'); ?>= display_ad('x20', 'visible-xs mm_mob_incontent', 'MM In Content (Mobile)'); ?>
Facebook is not even the first social networking experience most kids will have. It starts early, or at least, it did in our house. When my son was about eight, many of his mates – male and female – were obsessed for some time with a site called Club Penguin where kids made themselves penguin characters and interacted online. It was cute, anonymous and harmless. When they outgrew that, the boys moved on to Runescape, where you create a warrior avatar from the middle ages and do….middle agey things.
And now Facebook. Of course, this is very different to those other kiddie social networking sites. It’s real life (albeit online), there are no characters to hide behind and it’s an environment that includes adults.
This can be fraught but it’s still possible to manage if you’re smart. And if you’re a parent in 2010, you have to be smart.
Over dinner with friends a little while ago, the subject of Facebook came up as it often does socially these days. My friends’ daughters, aged 11 and 9, both recently joined Facebook and their parents were unsure if this was OK. As they spoke about it, they literally held their hands up in front of their faces, as if to hold back the tide of technology. Too late.
Because I have a blog, some friends turn to me for guidance on matters like this under the extremely misguided impression that I am Bill Gates. Clearly, I am not. But I am passionate about the fact that parents need to have a basic understanding of technology and social networking once their kids reach a certain age. This age depends on the child and it’s getting earlier – there are computers in most daycare centres and kids are learning to use a mouse long before a pen.
Nobody is suggesting your 6-year-old have a Facebook page. Except maybe your 6-year-old, especially if they have older siblings. But at some stage, probably around 10, the issue will come up. Here’s what you need to know:
8 FACEBOOK RULES FOR PARENTS
1. DON’T BE AN OSTRICH
When it comes to technology and your kids, you simply can’t afford to be an Ostrich. I’ve noticed that the head-in-the-sand approach is very common among parents and, in my opinion, irresponsible. Throwing up your hands and saying “Oh! Technology! I don’t understand it!” is a bit like saying “Oh! Nutrition! That’s all too hard!”
There are so many things we have to teach our kids about in order to equip them with vital life skills and keep them safe and healthy. Nutrition is one. Technology is another. Remember: you can’t make the rules if you don’t understand the game. Don’t panic, you don’t have to be on Facebook and Twitter yourself but you do need to know the basics of these sites so you can decide what’s appropriate for your kids. Because I understand how Facebook works, I know its potential weak spots for kids.
2. SET UP YOUR CHILD’S PAGE TOGETHER
By doing this, I was able to set the privacy settings. This is crucial. You want to make sure your child’s page is ONLY visible to friends. Same with photos etc. It’s also a good time to discuss what’s appropriate (and not) to write in status updates or comments. This will depend on your personal views. For us, we have a ban on any personal details including school, suburb where we live, swearing etc.
3. PUT IT IN WRITING
You will never have as much power as you do when your child really wants something and you are deciding whether or not to let them have it. When our son wanted his own computer, I printed out a contract, which he had to sign. It included clauses about us always having his password, limiting Internet uses to public rooms of the house, and stating our parental right to confiscate it or limit its use without warning. So far so good.
You may want to consider doing the same thing for Facebook.
4. IT’S NOT CALLED ‘SNOOPING’, IT’S CALLED ‘MONITORING’
“I think we are incredibly lucky to have Facebook,” says my husband who refuses to have his own page but can see its benefits. In explaining to our friends the benefits of our son having a page, he added: “Our own parents really had no clue about what we were up to,” he explained to our friends. “But we can jump online and see exactly what our kids are doing, not just them but their friends too.”
It’s true. Thanks to social networking sites, you can see exactly how they speak to each other and what they’re interested in. If this sounds a little like snooping it’s because it is. Or, as I prefer to call it ‘monitoring’. Facebook is the ultimate window into their world, especially during those years where communicating with them can be difficult because they don’t want to tell you anything.
Of course, to access this window, you need the password. Literally (see rule # x)
5. YOU NEED TO KNOW THE PASSWORD
The best time to get your child to agree to this is when you are first giving them permission to go on Facebook. Use that negotiating advantage. When you set up a Facebook page with your child, make sure yours is the ‘notifying’ address for emails. That way if your child tries to sneakily change their password, you’ll know about it.
6. THEY MUST ASK BEFORE UPLOADING PHOTOS
We also have rules about uploading photos – you probably don’t want family holiday snaps of you in a bikini on the internet. Not to mention the fact kids don’t really understand the idea that you lose control of images once they’re posted online….
7. THEY MUST ASK BEFORE ADDING FRIENDS
My son has to ask my permission before adding friends.This is a brilliant way to keep track of who he’s communicating with on-line. To keep it age-appropriate, be particularly careful about letting your child ‘add’ older siblings of their friends. Even a couple of years can make a huge difference to the things your child will be exposed to on Facebook.
8. NO ADULT FRIENDS
This is the most important rule and it’s one that most parents miss – my child is not allowed to be friends with any adults. None. This is an easy trap. There are plenty of adults in your child’s life – godparents and cousins and family friends – who are perfectly safe and responsible. However. As adults, they will have things on their own Facebook pages that are not appropriate for your child to be exposed to.
Think of it like this: if email is a one-on-one conversation, Facebook is a party. And while your 11 year old’s teenage cousin may be a perfectly nice kid, would you let your child go to a 19 year old’s party? At night?
Even older adults like aunts and uncles can pose problems when they’re ‘friends’ with your child. Because by being ‘friends’, your child isn’t just exposed to what they write but what all THEIR adult friends write on their homepage. It comes back to the party analogy. If your kid’s aunt was having a dinner party, would it be right for your child to sit at the table and listen to the conversation?
Seeing my point? In my experience, a no-adult rule is a simple way to keep Facebook age-appropriate for your kids.
[this is an edited version of a feature I wrote for Notebook magazine]
Are you on Facebook? If you have kids, are they? What do you find are the best and worst parts?