Curbing Reckless Child Behavior the Key to Social Networking Safety
Kids may not fully understand the permanence of the Net, or how one minor misstep could undermine years of commendable behavior. Spontaneously flipping a bird might not seem like a huge deal, but, when it publicly hangs over a kid's head -- especially when it's time to mail out college applications or join the overcrowded workforce -- the baggage may prove insurmountable. Parents also need to familiarize themselves with new and trendy sites that may not be ideal for young users. Formspring, and its innocent "Ask questions, give answers and learn more about your friends" tag line, may seem frivolous. It has, however, also earned a reputation for fostering anonymous bullying, inappropriate exchanges and an overall mob mentality among young members.
So, to help guard their kids, parents should establish defined parameters and guidelines for acceptable networking behavior. Parents can decide if they want to personally pre-approve all updates, posts, friends and -- perhaps most importantly -- photographs. Some obvious photography issues include nudity and underage drinking, but posting relatively innocuous pictures could also be extremely dangerous. As noted by the Federal Trade Commission, predators can use school sweatshirts, little league uniforms or other specific personal identifiers to determine the exact location of a potential target.
After creating an account, parents should personally update all privacy settings in order to block strangers or known undesirables from a child's page. That means universally setting the 'Friends Only' option for Facebook, and the 'My friends only' feature for MySpace. While Facebook definitely remains the most popular social networking service, MySpace still provides protective benefits that are of particular interest to parents. Users can block anyone over the age of 18 in order to ensure that kids only interact with other kids.
It may seem lame, but young networkers (or their account creators) should immediately "friend" or "follow" a parent, so that the adult can monitor all activities and correspondences. That monitoring, which definitely needs to include periodic friend list inspections, should occur on a regular basis. Parents also need to frequently scroll through the privacy controls in case savvy kids go back and customize their account's settings, particularly with Facebook. Facebook's Privacy Controls (accessible through the upper right hand 'Accounts' tab) include a 'Customize settings' option that resides at the bottom of the screen in a nondescript font. From there, users can modify the 'Posts by me' settings, and actually "hide" their status updates from specific people. So, if you think Junior's recent activity seems uncommonly quiet -- or nonexistent -- well, that might just be the reason.
Parents who do allow unfettered social networking may want to keep a record of their kids' various passwords. If potentially damaging material is posted, the adult can immediately access the account and remove the unwanted content. If, God forbid, a child falls prey to a predator, or decides to silently disappear for the weekend, the parent can also access the account and search for possible indicators of the youth's whereabouts. That final precaution may seem bleak and oppressive, but the term "overprotective parent" rapidly grows obsolete in terms of online safety.