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Parenting in the Age of Facebook

By Frank Bailinson

Parenting in the digital age offers complex and multifaceted challenges that were uncommon just a decade or two ago. The proliferation of social networking sites like Facebook have made some children more susceptible to online threats than ever before. And now, even when your children are safe at home, some of their habits and online activities could be putting them in harm’s way.

A recent ZoneAlarm study of 600 children ages 10 to 15 who use Facebook found that 43 percent of kids have experienced at least one serious problem on the popular social networking site. These problems include being approached by strangers, cyberbullying, hacked accounts, problematic friends, embarrassing photos, or having to create new account(s) to avoid problems.

Additionally, the study found that kids who report the most problems are active on Facebook during the wee hours of the night. It’s these late-night sessions that tend to fly under the radar of parent supervision.

The study calls these kids (who are on after midnight) Facebook’s “Wild Children.” These kids are especially vulnerable to online security risks. In fact, 60 percent of these Wild Children report having serious problems, which is twice as many problems as kids who log off earlier. Findings also indicate that these Wild Children are five times more likely to have very large networks of more than 400 friends—44 percent had online friends whom they had never met in person.

What’s worrying is that while these Wild Children face more problems, 30 percent say they are not concerned. And 30 percent also report taking no actions to improve their privacy and security on Facebook.

So is there anything you can do as a parent to protect your kids? By taking an active role in their Facebook time and activities, you can help them stay safe online. Here are some ways you can improve online safety and reduce the risks that Facebook and other social networks might present.

Discourage late-night activity or take extra precautions
Limit your kids’ time on Facebook and deter them from being active on the social network after midnight. If you have a pre-teen or teenager, odds are you wouldn’t let them stay out with their friends or roam the streets late at night. Similarly, try to encourage them to adhere to an online curfew. If this is difficult to enforce, an alternative or additional solution is to install a computer security product, such as ZoneAlarm Extreme Security, that comes with parental controls on every computer that could potentially be used by your kids. This type of software can help limit use, ensure privacy, and protect your kids from security threats.

Make your kids aware of the online dangers
An open dialogue between parents and children is very important. It is always more productive to instill and encourage safe online practices. Talk to your kids about the potential dangers on Facebook and other social networks. You can discuss what they should do if they are approached by someone they don’t know. And let them know that cyber-bullying is very real. ConnectSafely.org offers some helpful suggestions—remind kids to avoid responding or retaliating to online bullies, save any cyber-bullying messages they receive, and use preference and privacy tools to block online bullying activities.

Stress the importance of online privacy
Kids should take care to avoid posting too much personal information, including their birthday, home address, vacation plans, or general whereabouts, which predators or cybercriminals could use to their advantage. And while Facebook games and puzzles are fun, your kids should also be careful about using third-party applications on Facebook, because these could potentially use or share their personal information.

Help your kids adjust their privacy settings
Sit down with your kids and help them adjust their privacy settings on Facebook. By default, everyone’s Facebook privacy settings are set to “Public.” This means all your Facebook information, including your name, profile picture, posts, photos, timeline, and friend list, is viewable to strangers through search engines. The only personal information that is restricted is your contact info (phone and email) and birthday. And remember, the people you share with can always share your information with others, including apps.

It’s important to educate your kids on how they can manage their privacy settings for Timeline postings, contact details, applications, photos, friend lists, etc. Here are few ways to get more privacy from Facebook’s privacy controls. For a full list, go to www.zonealarm.com.

  • To tighten privacy settings for “Timeline postings” such as status updates, photos, and information, you can use the inline audience selector. Go to “Privacy Settings” and select either “Friends” or “Custom.”
  • For “contact details” such as email address and phone numbers, go to “Privacy Settings” then click on “How You Connect” and select “Edit Settings.” Change “Who can look you up using the email address or phone number you provided?” to “Friends.”
  • To tighten “application privacy,” go to “Privacy Settings,” and then go to “Apps, Games and Websites” and select “Edit Settings” for “App Settings.” From this screen you will see all your Facebook apps. Click “Edit” for any app you want to review, and a control panel will open. From this panel, you can adjust any settings that share too much information, or you can delete the app entirely.
  • For “photo privacy,” go to “Privacy Settings,” and then click on “Timeline and Tagging.” Select “Edit Settings,” then go to “Review tags friends add to your own posts on Facebook,” then from “Tag Review” screen, select “Enabled.”
It is a fact that social networks like Facebook and cyber security have become a part of raising children in the 21st century. The bottom line is there will always be risks, but there is no substitute for taking the necessary steps to avoid them. And a parent’s active role in monitoring their online activity can make a difference. While Facebook can present some risks and dangers, it can also provide a number of social benefits. As long as you take precautions and keep a watchful eye, you can ensure everyone in your family gets a good night’s sleep.

Frank Bailinson is Head of Strategic Projects for ZoneAlarm, Check Point Software Technologies’ consumer business. Bailinson has more than twenty years of experience working in the high-tech industry, specializing in security. At Check Point, Bailinson leads new social media projects for ZoneAlarm and is responsible for understanding emerging social media threats. Bailinson holds an MBA from Kellogg School of Management–Northwestern University. Bailinson also has a teenager at home who provides daily, real-world examples of Facebook use and misuse. Read more about this topic.

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