Speaking as a parent, I liken Facebook, and sites like it, to dust mites. It’d be awesome if I could eradicate them, but that’s not realistic. Instead, I try to look upon these services as offering me opportunities to further realize my parenting agenda. This article offers my top 10 tips for tapping this opportunity.
#1. Maintain a weekly dialogue with your child. Having weekly one-on-one time to discuss how your child’s life is going is an essential foundation for just about any important parenting agenda. “What are the best thing and the worst things that happened today, even if they were minor?” “Who are your top three friends these days and what do you like about them?” “What’s it like to be in 7th grade these days?” (Click here for a blog entry that lists other potential conversation starters.)
#2. Limit sedentary electronic pleasures to two hours a day. If a kid is plugged in more than this he may be missing out on other important activities (e.g., being physically active, doing academic work, socializing face-to-face.)
#3. Use the social networking mediums that your kid is using and link to your child (e.g., if your child uses Twitter discover what it can do for you and be sure to follow each other.)
You also want to make sure your child doesn’t have two social networking accounts: the one you’re connected to and the one on which he goes rogue.
#4. Find the middle ground in monitoring your progeny’s online life. Over-monitoring a successful and responsible child dampens the development and unnecessarily taxes your relationship. Under-monitoring a child who is struggling, or who is putting herself into harmful situations, is obviously not a good idea either. This is where your world’s leading expertise is essential to inform your steps. Programs that track your child’s computer use can be very helpful if used wisely (e.g.,www.spector.com/spectorpro.html, www.webwatchernow.com.)
#5. Network with other parents. Whenever you’re hanging out with other parents (e.g., on the sidelines of games, before a parent meeting starts) ask them what strategies they use. While you may hear from parents who seem misguided in their approach, others may have clever insights and ideas to share. There is also an abundance of online resources available for parents. (e.g. www.wiredkids.org, www.familyinternet.about.com, www.familysafemedia.com.)
#6. Set up rules. Here are some I’d suggest:
- No swearing.
- No discussions of sexual or illegal activity.
- No threatening others.
- No “friending” people above the age of (i.e., your 11-year-old child’s 19-year-old cousin may be super nice to her and a great person, but friending her on Facebook may afford your child access to inappropriate adult material, either on her cousin’s page or on the page of someone in her cousin’s network.)
- Under the “How You Connect” portion under “Privacy Settings,” make sure they are all set to “Friends.”
- Public searches should be disabled on Facebook. This means that people cannot find your child’s page through Internet searches. Under “Privacy Settings” click on “Apps and Websites,” then click on “Edit Settings” that is next to “Public Search.” Then uncheck the “Enable Public Search” box.
- You must get others’ permission before posting his or her picture online. Depending on the age and maturity of your child you may also decide that you must also approve all pictures before they are posted; this would also allow you to determine if your child’s friend’s parents’ approval should be garnered.
#7. Role-play scenarios. This is an excerpt from a 2008 national study of the online experiences of kids aged 10-15, authored by Drs. Michele Ybarra and Kimberly Mitchell, that appeared in Pediatrics: “Fifteen percent of all of the youth reported an unwanted sexual solicitation online in the last year; 4% reported an incident on a social networking site specifically. Thirty-three percent reported an online harassment in the last year; 9% reported an incident on a social networking site specifically. Among targeted youth, solicitations were more commonly reported via instant messaging (43%) and in chat rooms (32%), and harassment was more commonly reported in instant messaging (55%) than through social networking sites (27% and 28%, respectively.)” Given how common such experiences are, we do well to train our kids how to respond. “Hunter, what would you do if someone put on their Facebook page a hurtful lie about you?” “Aiden, what would you say if someone asked you for your address?”
#8. Set up parental controls on computers that your child uses. This includes using browsers that allow you to block inappropriate content (e.g., bumpercar, www.cybersitter.com,) not allowing your child to covertly install software (i.e., through settings within the system software), and making sure that there are sufficient parental controls on your child’s other gear that can go online (e.g., cell phone, video game console, portable gaming unit.) After you set up your controls, offer a tech-savvy 20-something person a gift card if he can try to circumvent your controls; offer a higher value gift card if he is successful and can show you how to install effective countermeasures.
#9. Make sure your child understands the limits of privacy on the Internet. Colleges search Facebook pages for information, as do employers, volunteer organizations, and other people who might be a gatekeeper for some experience, membership, or standing that your child may desire in the future (e.g., I recently heard of a coach of a travel baseball team who rejected a kid’s application to play on the team because of what he found at that kid’s Facebook page.)
#10. Consider what you might do to promote the privacy of your family’s online experience. Each computer has an IP address that tells Internet sites you visit where you’re located. However, there are services available that make it more challenging to do this (e.g., www.anonymizer.com.) As a start, you might read up on IPs and privacy (e.g., http://www.livinginternet.com/i/iw_ip.htm). Moreover, many websites will, without you knowing it, collect information from your computer. However, there is software available that allows you to approve or disapprove this activity (e.g., for Macs: www.littlesnitch.com; for Windows: www.zonealarm.com.) Keep in mind that some have argued that Facebook’s true customers are not its users but the corporations to which it sells information about its users.
David Palmiter Jr., Ph.D., ABPP, is President-Elect of PPA, the author of the award-winning Working Parents, Thriving Families, a psychology professor, a Public Education Coordinator for APA, a practicing clinician, a dad of 3.0 children (3.5 if you count his neurotic dog) and a husband of 20+ years. His blog is at www.hecticparents.com.