Although Facebook requires users to be at least 13 years of age, millions of pre-teens are using fake birthdays to create accounts, often with the help of their parents. According to a study by Pew Research Center, 46% of online 12 year-olds use social network sites like Facebook.
Many parents find this pre-teen trend alarming. Once on Facebook, children can be targeted by predators, exposed to ads meant for adults, and to potentially inappropriate content posted by others. As mom Natasha C. shares, “The problem with Facebook is if you are ‘friends’ with somebody, you have access to whatever their friends post and it may not always be appropriate for young kids.” Telling kids it’s fine to fudge your age can also send a bad message about other serious age-restricted behaviors, such as drinking alcohol.
So why are parents breaking the rules?
Many Circle of Moms members argue that they’d rather sign up their child for Facebook and teach them safe Internet practices under close supervision rather than forbid the site and risk their child opening an account behind their back. Leanne M. explains: “If we never give them the chance to learn, how will they learn? They will go behind our backs. I'd rather she have something like a FB acct with my knowledge and a mutual understanding that she is NOT to screw that privilege up!”
Additionally, many parents argue that Facebook is a positive communication tool for keeping in touch with out-of-town relatives and friends, and that games like Farmville are fun and harmless.
If you are going to allow your pre-teen on social networking sites like Facebook, consider the following safety tips suggested by savvy Circle of Moms members:
1. Honestly evaluate your child’s maturity. Before taking the plunge, seriously consider whether your child is ready to handle the responsibility of a Facebook account. “Is your daughter trustworthy?" asks Heather B. "Will she come to you if someone asks her to add them to her friends list, if she doesn't know them? Is she open and honest in other areas of her life, because if she isn't then there is a chance she won't be about Facebook.”
2. Explain Internet risks. As Christina P. advises, “Explain the dangers of the Internet, for instance people she doesn't know, spam, cyber bullying and such.” Go over information that shouldn't be posted, including her location and when the family is taking a vacation.
3. Set privacy settings extremely high. “Adjust all the settings for maximum privacy,” Debbie C. recommends. Many parents set their pre-teen's profile to private, so that the child can search for and "friend" people, but not the reverse.
4. Don't post key identifying info. Prevent identity theft by keeping important basic information off the profile. As Susie H. suggests: “Take off her date of birth and her age to protect her from identity fraud.” Others recommend using a fake name.
5. Don’t post a personal photo as the profile image. Prevent strangers from knowing a child is on the account by using a drawing, illustration or landscape photograph as the profile image. As Gayle S. shared of her son: "He chose to put a drawing up as his ID pic, and I thought that was a great idea, and a bit of added security."
6. Monitor contacts. Only allow “friend-ing” of family and close friends, and review the child's friend list often. Many Circle of Moms members also carefully review the profiles of their children's friends to ensure they are positive influences
7. Know the password. Many parents gave their pre-teens a Facebook account under the condition that the parent know the password and be able to log in to monitor the account. Felicia G. shares: "Make sure you have her login information. I have my daughter's and I can check it anytime I want."
Some parents even keep the password a secret from the child, so they will only log in when the adult is present. Explain the importance of keeping passwords secret, even from best friends.
8. Set up email notifications. If you set up the account with one of your own email addresses, you can monitor the friend requests your child receives and the photos she's tagged in.
9. Set consequences. "Make sure you set basic ground rules and hold up your end if she breaks any of them," advises Cynthia S., and Rebecca S. agrees: “Trust is a big issue and she knows if she messes up I will deactivate it.”