It’s time! Your child has turned 13 and is now officially eligible to join a social networking community! They’ve been begging you for the past 2 years to let them on because all their friends are already there. You’re ready, and you’re confident that they’re ready too. Your child is smart, savvy, and can easily navigate the technology. But before you send them out into the world of social networking, let me share a few tips based on my experience working with the people who make these sites.
Through my company, PlayWell, LLC, I help companies build in the privacy, safety, and other protections that are necessary when making digital and mobile products for children. I also help them build products that are safe for young teens. But most social networking sites haven’t been built for children or young teens, at least, not intentionally.
So, before you let your child leave the kid sites behind, talk about your expectations for how they’ll behave online. Set them up for success so that they can take advantage of all the wonderful things that technology provides, while avoiding the pitfalls.
For your child, 13 is the magic number. It’s the age that users need to be before signing up for many social networking sites. But there’s really nothing magic about the age. It simply means that the site no longer has to put in special features to protect children’s privacy. They’re in the world of adults now. Don’t allow them to lie to get onto sites before the site wants them there.
We learned the lesson when we were kids: don’t talk to strangers. But these days, the Internet can give us anonymity, and strangers can seem like friends, especially to a child. Talk to your child about only connecting with people they know in the real world. Give them the confidence to avoid connecting with strangers and instead, to enjoy getting to know their real world friends in a new way.
Remind your child to tell you if they see something on a site that makes them uncomfortable. In addition, look at their favorite sites with them and find out where the “report” buttons are. Use them to alert the site operators when something is wrong. Companies really do pay attention to those reports and they’ll take action when necessary.
The only one who should know your child’s password is you. Teach your child that there are things that are private – such as bank account numbers, Social Security numbers, where you stash the extra key to the house, and passwords. Strangers don’t need to know their personal information, and friends don’t need their passwords. Talk to them about how they might respond when faced with a request for personal information so that they’re prepared.
If your child wouldn’t say something in front of a parent, teacher or other adult, they shouldn’t say it online. Remind your child that words hurt, even if we can’t see the reaction. If your child sees others behaving badly online, help them feel empowered to speak up and tell you, a teacher, a coach or other trusted adult.
In the end, the best advice I can give is to talk to your child as early and as often about online safety and privacy as you do about real world safety and privacy. Every time you ask your child who they’re hanging out with, what time to be home, or who’s calling them, you might consider that as a cue to think about the online equivalent, and set up some time to talk about that too.
Cover image courtesy of Flickr.