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Help Your Teen Make Facebook Safer


We often forget about maintaining the things that are most obvious in our lives. I’m grateful for that “Check Engine” light in my car that reminds me to change the oil every so often, otherwise I’m sure I’d be driving with muddy sludge in my engine by now. I wish more things in my life had similar indicators.


If Facebook is a big activity with your kids, it may be time to check under the hood of this popular website and ensure that security settings are set appropriately.  If you have read any of my previous articles on social networking, you’ll know that the first thing I suggest is to acquire your own Facebook page and then ask your kids if they will allow you to be their “friend” (a Facebook term that means both your profiles are linked together).  This will allow you to view their profile pages and make sure everything they post is safe and acceptable. It will also allow you to send them messages – but I’d keep to the private ones. Having Mom or Dad populate their public “wall” with dozens of messages may prohibit positive future cyberspace relationships.


After taking this beginning step, next it’s time to start fiddling with some of the finer Facebook settings – stuff your young one may find extremely boring, yet I strongly encourage the two of you to work through this together.


Begin with the most tedious task of all: Having a look at Facebook’s “Terms of Use.”  Virtually every website has one of these pages which amount to the “fine print” of the Internet. I doubt either you or your teen will have the patience to read this from top to bottom, but I’d suggested at least taking a look at the sections titled “Proprietary Rights in Site Content”, “User Conduct”, and “User Content Posted on the Site”.


Not too long ago, Facebook users were surprised when they discovered the company laid claim to everything on their personal profile pages. This meant all your kid’s writing (okay, it isn’t Hemmingway...) and, perhaps even more serious, photographs were the company’s property. Fortunately they have changed to their current stance that says everything is the property of the company except your stuff. In other words, you can’t steal your friend’s photographs (except for personal use) but all your pictures still belong to you. However, note in the “User Content Posted on the Site” section that even if you delete a picture of you with that once-significant other whom you now detest, Facebook may still keep “archived copies” of your content but they do not “assert any ownership” over them. In other words, your images may be kept on a hard drive far, far away for a very long time.


It’s good to come back to Facebook’s Terms of Use page occasionally, because one of their terms is they have the right to change the rules of using Facebook anytime they wish. On the Internet, nothing is permanent (except that picture you wish you could get rid of).


That’s enough fine print. Now it’s time to check some very important boxes in Facebook’s security settings. To find these, travel to the very top right corner of the page and click the word “Settings.” A page will appear with a few choices. Note that this is where you come to change your password. If your (or your teen’s) password is currently set to your middle name or phone number, start here. Make a good cryptic password with a mix of letters and numbers. This helps to protect from others using your account and pretending to be you. This is also a good time to remind your kids to never ever share passwords with anyone. In this age of cyber-banking and cyber-everything else, it’s a good lesson to begin teaching early.


You’ll also find the ultimate “emergency stop” function on this page. Look for “Deactivate Account” which will wipe your profile and everything associated with it completely off of Facebook. (Just remember that little statement about “archiving” in the Terms of Use.)


The main area I encourage you move to from the Settings page is the Privacy section. Give this a click and look through the menus. I’m not going to discuss every option here, but explore all your choices and discuss them with your young Facebooker. (Of course, if you are operating your own Facebook profile, you will also want to consider these choices.) I’ll walk you through a few highlights...


Amongst the options on the first page that appears after clicking Privacy, you will want to note that you can block individual users. This is a key tool in preventing someone from writing and posting on your Facebook profile. Obviously, it doesn’t stop them from saying nasty things about you on their own pages (of course legal issues would still ensue) but it will block an enemy from writing notes on your wall or harassing you with other means.


Next, have a look at the “Profile” settings (it’s the link at the top of the Privacy page list). This allows you to control who is allowed to see your Facebook information and photos. I strongly suggest, especially for young people, that none of these settings be changed to anything more open than “Only Friends.” Selecting “Friends of Friends” opens your profile and/or other information up to a vast number of people. If you have 100 friends and each of them have 100 friends, you are now sharing with 10,000 people, and you probably don’t know 9,900 of them. The “My networks” setting is even more dangerous – most profiles are linked to entire cities or other networks, and the “Everyone” setting should really only be used if you are attempting to use Facebook as a marketing tool. Finally, note there are two tabs on the top of the Profile settings: Basic and Contact Information. Make sure you check the settings on each of these, as they control who sees your phone number and other personal information.


Now that you have made changes to your profile settings, you have two more important steps. First, make sure you click the “Save Changes” box at the bottom of the page. Simply clicking your browser’s “Back” button or going to another page will not save your settings. The second step involves my favorite Facebook privacy tool. Note near the top of the Profile privacy settings page there is a small box that says, “See how a friend sees your profile.” In this box, you can type any of your friend’s names and see exactly what information is being shared. This is a good test to make sure you haven’t missed anything.


Click back to the main Privacy page and click the “Search” function. Near the top of the page, you will see a setting for “Search Visibility.” This setting may require some discussion between you and your teen, as it controls who can search for you on Facebook. Obviously, one of the reasons most people want a Facebook account is so others can find them. For those of us who have a few decades of relationships behind us, this can be particularly fun. This is one of the few settings you may want to leave set to “Everyone,” however, if you want to limit who can find you (or your child) if they did a general search on Facebook (and this includes someone who is not a member of Facebook), then select one of the more restrictive settings.


Note the checkboxes under the heading “Search Result Content.” These control the initial search information that someone can see about you. Assuming you have your profile locked down in the Profile settings discussed earlier, no one will be able to gain any other knowledge about you than what is checked here. You can also disable links to have someone add you as a friend or to send you a message.


Finally, you’ll see a section called “Public Search Listing.” This created some controversy when Facebook began offering people’s profiles to be searched by Google and other search engines. You can uncheck this box and prevent people from finding you through Google. Also note that minors are automatically exempted from this feature (assuming they have accurately entered their age into Facebook when they created their profile).


This is by no means an exhaustive look at setting up the perfect privacy plan in Facebook. Frankly, if you are really concerned about your kid’s privacy, Facebook is last thing they should be pursuing. The whole point of the site is to broadcast your presence to the Internet universe. However, by keeping an eye on these settings and Facebook’s legal mumbo jumbo, you will be ahead of many other users in keeping your information safe and only sharing what you want to share.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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