How to protect your kids on Facebook

Ensure you and your child have a fun and safe experience with Facebook

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Facebook: Like it or loathe it, you just can't ignore it. Millions of people use Facebook every day for a myriad of functions, and this includes your kids. While it can be fun to update status messages and IM friends and play social games, it must be acknowledged that the internet is an increasingly dangerous place to inhabit these days. Regrettably, not everyone is who they say they are out there, and enough children have fallen victim to those who prey upon them that we as parents need to take the necessary steps to keep our families safe.

Fortunately, teaching our kids how to be safe on the internet -- and Facebook in particular -- need not be an onerous task. A few basic rules will go a long way in preventing potential tragedy.

Monitor what your kids are doing online. As the parent, it is your right and duty to make sure your children aren't visiting sites that are inappropriate for their age and development. The best way to do this is to keep the family computer in a public area. You don't necessarily need to stand over them and read over their shoulders to be sure that what they're doing is okay, but the simple expedient of having to use a public terminal tends to ensure that your children won't be tempted into visiting sites you'd rather they didn't.

Know who your child's friends are. Families of victims of internet predators typically claim that they had no knowledge of the people their kids were interacting with. This is understandable; we want to give our children their own space and privacy, and know that we can trust them. However, we need to know exactly who our kids are friending on Facebook. The rule to teach your kid is: Don't friend anyone you don't know in real life. Photos can be faked, and there's no way to prove that the person on the other side of the internet is who they say they are. This leads into the next rule...

Know your child's username and password. This can be a sensitive subject, but it's absolutely necessary. As the parent, it's your job to set limits for all manner of behaviors, both online and off. If your kid wants her own Facebook account, help her set it up, and let her know that you have the login information. She shouldn't be posting anything she wouldn't want you to see in the first place, and knowing that you have veto privileges over the account should be enough to ensure compliance.

Friend your child. This follows from the previous rule. Facebook shouldn't be your child's private playground, and as such, she should be fine with having you able to see whatever she posts. Again, you needn't comment on everything she puts online; she should feel that her mother or father isn't watching her every move suspiciously. But this way, you'll see the way she interacts with her friends... and you'll also see if any strangers are dropping in on the conversation.

Secure your child's account. This is something that all Facebook users should do, regardless of age or experience. Facebook doesn't make it terribly easy to know if your account is entirely secure or how much of your personal information is being shared by default. Locking down your profile is doubly important for your child, who may not be savvy enough to realize how sharing her information can hurt her. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a wonderful step-by-step guide to maximizing your settings for privacy, but in general, you'll want to use the most restrictive options available. In most cases, these will be "Friends only." In the case of "Contact information," "No one" is the best recourse. Anyone who needs to know that information should already have it. Finally, "Enable public search" should be unchecked. If only friends should see what you're putting up, this ensures that will remain the case.

Finally, keep talking to your child about everything she does on Facebook. Know what she likes and dislikes. Share with her the things you learn about concerning privacy and safety. Let her know that you want her experience to be as positive as possible and that you're always looking out for her. She needs to know that you're on her side and that she can come to you with news of anything untoward that may happen. There are some scary people out there, but with the proper preparation and some common sense, you and your child can have fun using Facebook.

[Image credit: Ray-Franco Bouly]