Saturday, November 13, 2010

Social Networking for Dummies, AKA How to stay safe and protect your family in the Internet age

In my roles as both a psychologist and as a parent, I am often faced with the difficult question of "to facebook or not to facebook".  I am one of the brave ones. I have many many co-workers, colleagues and friends who are parents, who say "No way...I'm not putting MY business out there for anyone to read".  They have a point... but the Internet is a reality, and it's not going away. I am here to tell you, SO FAR SO GOOD. To date, this experiment has not blown up in my face, and you are now reading this blog because I took the risk.

As a 40-something, Generation X-er who did not grow up texting, and did not have my first 286 IBM compatible computer with Prodigy Internet (with a dial-up modem) until I was out of high school, the world of texting, Internet and, now, social networking, was initially a scary and ominous place.  Coupled with being a professional (teacher, doctor, psychologist, therapist, etc), needing to have a professional life with clear boundaries for my patients, but also having family and friends scattered across the globe, this created quite a dilemma for me.  So, I decided to plunge headfirst into the world of the "Interwebs" and the first thing to do my father taught me: arm yourself with education and knowledge.

The most important thing to remember when you turn on your computer and link to the Internet is that anything you put out there is really OUT THERE. You cannot delete things from the Internet.  Pictures, posts, video... no turning back.  If you Google yourself (go ahead, try it) you might be surprised about what you find already out there without your even trying. Imagine if you made a REAL effort to get your name out there? The possibilities are limitless. From a marketing point of view, the Web is brilliant.  Personally, it comes with a great deal of responsibility.

Here are some important things to consider when you, or your family members use social networking sites:

  • a social networking site that was originally created for college students
  • minimum age for joining Facebook is 14 without parental permission (in fact there is a law prohibiting the collection of personal information for children under 13 without parental permission!)
  • 500 million users worldwide
  • users can choose privacy options, but many have trouble finding these or setting them properly (if you have trouble with this, as someone who knows, it is critical to safeguard pictures and personal information)
  • facebook has had some difficulties with privacy practices and breaches have been reported in the news
  • Pictures, notes, and other posts can be read by anyone with access
  • 140 character "tweets" can be sent that give brief information
  • not as popular as facebook, but can give "real time" updates and let people know your whereabouts
You Tube
  • users can post video, especially risky for teens who post themselves
  • content can be removed or protected, but is still at risk for copying and exploitation
  • Social networking site used a great deal for musical groups
  • Minimum age is 14 without parental consent
  • Any one under the age of 18 is automatically set to a "private" setting, where their "friend" must know them and their email address to link with them
  • Pictures, posts and "bulletins" can be send to everyone in their network
Just remember, all of these sites can be great ways to stay in touch, but they also come with a great deal of responsibility.  I know that some parents out there will disagree with me about this, and the decision to use or not use these sites is one you must make with your family individually.  In addition, there are social networking sites that specifically target children and are kid-friendly.  If you choose to use social media, here are some tips for parents:

1.  Set the ground rules for texting, computer use, and social networking - clear guidelines and consequences for infractions will let your kids know up front what the expectations are, and what will happen if they break the rules.

2. Friend your kid - if they are on facebook, you are on facebook. Doesn't mean you have to publicly comment on everything they say, just be present and keep your eyes open. This can help detect any strangers who your child does not know personally, or can be aware of any cyberbullying that is occurring.  You can also stay on top of what pictures and information they are sharing. 

3. Be a good role model - If you have social networking accounts, use good judgement so your kids can see what it "should" look like. Do not post personal information, cursing or lewd jokes, or inappropriate pictures.

4. If you sense something is wrong, ask questions and LISTEN TO YOUR KID! - The first thing many parents do it say "That's it, no more facebook." or "I am taking your phone".  To a teenager, this feels like social isolation. The best thing to do is develop open lines of communication and use these situations as a teaching opportunity.  I am not saying that there should not be consequences - just "respond" instead of "react".

Arming yourself with knowledge and learning how these sites work is the best defense. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. I know that I only scratched the surface in this blog. And please remember, help is always available if you or your child is struggling. ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST!


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