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The Facebook facts

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Now that a quarter of the people online are also on Facebook, it’s no surprise children want to be there, too. Getting a first Facebook page has become a rite of passage, just like picking out a first backpack or having a first sleepover.

Fortunately, teaching kids to use social media responsibly is easier now, since so many parents have direct experience with its opportunities and perils. If you don’t already have your own Facebook page, set one up before your child asks. Then, you’ll be able to explain the difference between sending a private message to a friend and posting on a wall, where that post can be seen by the wider world.

Deciding when your child is ready for an account is tricky. If you start when your child is younger, he will be happy to have your help in setting up the page. That way, you can establish the strictest level of friends-only privacy, choose a good password and insist your child include you on his friend list. These safeguards allow you to keep an eye on how your child behaves in the company of online friends, something you should be doing for pre-teens regardless of venue.

Whenever you decide your child is ready for the real deal, visit the Parent Section of the Facebook Safety Center. This comprehensive guide will clear up any lingering uncertainty about how to use the many safety features on the site.

Here are a few things you’ll want to emphasize — repeatedly — as your child joins the world of social networking:

No contact info!

Facebook wants you to use your real name so you can connect with people who know you in real life. For kids, finding high school classmates is irrelevant, so it may be better to use a first name and last initial. Other contact information should also be taboo. No one of any age should post an address, e-mail address or phone number on Facebook.

Age limits for friends

At first, approve all friend requests if only to be sure your child’s network is limited to children he knows in real life. Once your child starts adding adults — even relatives — he will have access to their pages on which they will, in all likelihood, discuss their adult lives. Think carefully about whether you really want your child to read political rants from his uncle or see photos from an older cousin’s spring break. As a child demonstrates maturity, the kids-only rule may loosen, but you should still go through the friend list from time to time and ask how people got there.

Picture policy

For newbies, you’ll want to approve every posted photo — including the profile picture. Even experienced users need reminders that they shouldn’t post salacious or foolish photos of themselves. They also shouldn’t post — much less tag — photos of others (including family members!) without their permission. That’s especially true if the photo shows something that might be regarded as funny by some and humiliating by others.

Know your apps

Games and quizzes are part of the fun on Facebook. Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t approve apps, so signing up for one may expose your child — and his friends — to spam or viruses. Encourage younger kids to ask before accepting an app invitation. With older kids, periodically visit the “Applications and Websites” link at the bottom of the Privacy Settings page. Clicking on that link brings up a list of apps your child has downloaded and gives you a chance to remove unwanted or “spammy applicatio­ns.”

Grandma approval

It’s hard for young children to wrap their minds around the idea that what they post on Facebook might make it hard for them to get into college or land a good job. Asking your child to imagine what grandma would think if she saw a post should cut down on meanness, as well as bragging about inappropriate behavior.

Schedule time

Facebook can consume hours of time without much to show for it. So set up specific times for social networking — and enforce them.

• • •

As children get older, they should earn more freedom and privacy on Facebook by demonstrating responsible behavior. You’ll also want to have ongoing conversations about social networking so your child will feel free to talk to you about problems he encounters.

Helping your child learn responsible use of social media is a lot like teaching your child to ride a bike or answer the phone properly. The difference is that what your child says and does online can — and probably will — follow him into adulthood.

That should be an incentive for parents to help kids master the nuances of social networking from the start.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for over 20 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Read other Growing Up Online columns at www.growing-up-online.com.

@ Copyright, 2010, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.

Updated 4:29 pm, July 9, 2018
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