by Grace Osmond, Guidance Counsellor
Posted November 13, 2012
In 2004, a Harvard student named Mark Zuckerberg created a social networking tool called “Facebook.” Four years later, he was the world’s youngest billionaire. Many parents have trouble comprehending – much less sharing – our children’s obsession with Facebook. So how can we provide the guidance they need?
Enter Mr. Chris Vollum, a social media expert from Oakville, Ontario. Last year, Chris brought his presentation “Facebook 101” to HTS, to help us address the vital issues of privacy and usage.
When you sign on to Facebook, almost anyone can view your page. To ensure privacy, a user must change the settings. This is easy, and imperative for young people to do. It is not uncommon for students to have more than 450 Facebook “friends” – in reality, friends of friends of friends: hundreds of people they don’t know. Without strict privacy settings, these strangers can see intimate details on your child’s profile. Mr. Vollum offered a good rule of thumb: judge potential Facebook friends by whether or not we would trust them alone in our house.
He then related some cautionary tales about inappropriate use: the young Canadian whose hockey scholarship to a prestigious American university was revoked when his Facebook postings ended up on the dean’s desk; the woman who was fired after her boss read on Facebook that she was bored at work; the couple who posted the dates of an upcoming holiday, and arrived home to find that they had been robbed. What you post is not confidential. It never disappears from the Facebook archives, and they own everything, including pictures, posted on every account. Forever.
Technically, one must be 13 or older to use Facebook. With 7.5 million underage American children on Facebook, clearly age is easy to falsify. I know this all too well from personal experience. Using a friend’s iPod during recess one day, my daughter was able to sign on to Facebook. She was just 12 years old at the time. We had not allowed her to use an iPod for school, nor did she have a cellphone, yet she was able sign on in less than a minute. Parents who believe they can prevent their child’s access to social media need a wake-up call, like the one I had.
So how do we help our children safely navigate this largely uncharted territory? First and foremost, keep the lines of communication open. If your child is on Facebook, you need to be there too. As a Facebook friend, you (or other adults you both know and trust) can keep an eye on your child’s activities. What about just saying no? Many teens have two accounts – one their parents know about and one they don’t. I believe it is better to guide Facebook usage than to forbid it and send your teen underground.
It is important to establish ground rules, right from the start. Set clear time limits. And don’t allow a laptop or smartphone in your child’s bedroom at night. In our house, we have “cellphone nests” with a charger for each phone. When my kids go to bed, I can see all the phones nesting in their chargers, so the temptation to text or check Facebook is removed.
One important note for parents of teenage girls: messaging seems to create particular pressure among girls. If your daughter does not reply promptly to a friend’s text, she may fear offending her. An incoming “r u mad at me?” creates the need for even more texting. If this is happening, discuss coping strategies together. Recently, I learned about a strategy some of our Grade 8 girls came up with this year. While studying for exams, they all agreed to go off Facebook so that no one would feel the pressure to answer anyone else. Strategies like this indicate that our children are learning how to manage social networking in a mature way.
It is hard for some of us to accept the value our teens place on socializing in the virtual world of Facebook and other networking sites. Considering how much of their social and emotional development is happening in this world, should we not help them develop the skills to function safely and successfully within it? As Chris Vollum made clear, Facebook is not going away. How we adapt to it and communicate with our teens is up to us. As we find our voice as parents in this new world, we help our children learn to find theirs.