This post was originally written for Summit Series for Families.
Recently, The Huffungton Post published articles (one here and another here) where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talks about his position regarding children as young as thirteen using Facebook: he says yes. One article indicates that according to research done by Consumer Reports, there are already 7.5 million Facebook users under the age of thirteen. This could be debated ad nauseum, whether children so young should have a Facebook account, but the debate won’t hide the reality – young children are online using Facebook as well as gaming sites, video sites, and other social networking sites right along with adults and often without their parents knowing. So pushing aside the debate, instead, focus on what we as parents can do if our kids are going to use the Internet – and they are. Our children are digital natives. Here are some suggestions I give to parents when I do Internet safety presentations in my school district.
Online Gaming If your kids are playing any games online, consider sitting down next to them to see what the games are about. Learn about the parental controls each game site has and employ them as needed. If your child wants to play games online, often creating an account is required, so help your child do this to make sure he isn’t giving out too much personal information.
Game Systems If your child plays games on systems like Xbox and Xbox 360, the live feature allows interactive game play, chatting, and photo sharing. These systems also have parental controls available, and often these controls are in place even when your child logs in at a friend’s house.
YouTube Kids love to watch videos online, and YouTube is about the easiest site to find videos on. YouTube can be run in Safety Mode, which will help filter out videos with inappropriate content. (Read more about safety features on YouTube here.)
Cell Phones Enable parental controls on cell phones. To find out what’s available and what charges might be for those services, it will be necessary to contact the cellular service provider. It is also important to periodically check the outgoing and incoming calls to the phone as well as peruse the texts on the phone. Some may say this is a violation of privacy, but in this age of cyberbullying, I think it is imperative for parents to check up on how the technology they are paying for is being used. It is also advisable to set a time for cell phone use to end for the day and have the phone plugged in for the night somewhere other than the child’s bedroom. At my house, my high school daughter plugs her phone into the outlet in my bedroom at 10:30 every night. She gets it back no earlier than 6:00 A.M.
Social Networking If your child wants an account on Facebook or some other social network and you approve, the responsibility has just begun. Parents should also create an account with the same social network and “friend” their kids. My rule for my daughter was she had to be friends with me and her father or she would lose the Facebook account. Periodically go through your child’s friends list and ask who the people are. If a “friend” isn’t someone your child can say he or she knows personally and has actually had face-to-face contact with, the person should be taken off the friends list. Look at your child’s posts and if there are any that aren’t okay with you, ask for them to be taken down. If they don’t get taken down in time, then take them down yourself. This brings me to my next tip: have the username and password for your child’s account. I log in to my daughter’s account periodically to make sure she hasn’t been sneaky and changed it on me (she hasn’t, fortunately). One caveat: if I have to log in and take down something, I also take a moment to change the password so she can’t log on without my permission. Again, I don’t view this as a violation of privacy; I see it as a way to prevent problems that arise from online drama.
In general, parents need to educate themselves about the technology their kids are using and then get involved. One colleague of mine has a daughter who has been begging for a Facebook account. My friend is going to relent but she is also getting one for herself, which she dreads. She says she doesn’t want to do things on Facebook. I told her she doesn’t have to – all she needs to do is check in on what her daughter is doing; she doesn’t have to do anything else if she doesn’t want to. But she, like the rest of us parents, has to be involved. Our kids are only going to get more involved with technology as they get older so let’s make sure they get a good foundation!