Are Facebook, Twitter, texting, and mobile media devices really safe for kids? Last week, I posted an article that looked at five things that people should never post to their Facebook page. A few days later, I came across a text message that someone had copied and posted to another person’s wall. Taken in context, the words were innocent, but when posted separately they assumed on a whole new meaning that was embarrassing to the text’s original author. The fact that everyone involved in the information exchange was younger than 16 really drove home the fact that kids, and many adults for that matter, will post almost anything if they think it will get a laugh and draw traffic and friends to their walls.
Every teenager wants their posts to “go viral”, and most do not stop to think about the long-term consequences of their actions. Even though I have no empirical data to support this, I personally believe that many of today’s teens don’t draw a clear psychological distinction between activities where they are consuming media, like playing video games, and the digital activities of social media where they are creating media for others see. No one cares if junior drives a Ferrari 250 miles per hour through downtown Tokyo while playing Xbox. It’s not real and no one is really hurt. So how could posting one little picture on Facebook be any different? In a digital teenager’s mind, if someone finds it offensive, all they have to do is turn the switch off and everything goes back to normal. Not true.
With this in mind, what’s a parent to do? Unfortunately, demanding that your teenager go without a cell phone or Facebook page is tantamount to forcing them into social oblivion. Even “unpopular” kids can rack up hundreds of Facebook friends from school, and some school activities, like practice times for sports teams, are coordinated through Facebook. But there are some rules that parents might want to follow:
- Make sure you know your child’s Facebook username and password. This is a no brainer. As long as you know the password, you control the account. If there ever comes a time when you want to remove something, or even block the child’s access, you have the keys to the kingdom.
- Create your own page and make them friend you. If they know you are watching, they might use better judgement. Just make sure you set your own privacy settings correctly.
- Be responsive to other parents. If another parent calls you to complain about something your child posted on Facebook, be willing to work with him or her to get the content removed.
- Enforce a “No History Equals No Device” rule. Most smart phones have browsers that are similar to Internet Explorer, Chrome, or Apple’s Safari. Establish a rule that you reserve the right to check the device’s history every so often to see what sites junior has been visiting. If you are really motivated you can also check the cookies stored in the cache to see if there are any from sites you don’t want him visiting. Keep in mind, however, that the browsing history only goes back a few days, so don’t be freaked out if you can’t tell what he was up to last month.
- Do Unto Others. Emphasize to your child that he should never post anything online that he wouldn’t want posted about himself. It’s easy to think something is funny as long as it’s someone else who looks stupid. But learning to take a step back and consider the impact of one’s actions is part of growing up. Follow the golden rule.