Keeping Facebook private

Children should understand why it's important to keep their personal information private when using Facebook.

At a glance

  • Google your child's name, then search for them on Facebook. See who has access to what information.
  • Make sure your child sets their privacy options so only genuine friends can find them on Facebook.
  • Having hundreds of Facebook friends isn't proof of popularity, just proof privacy is not being taken seriously.
  • What goes on Facebook can become public and permanent – the good, the bad and the soul-destroyingly embarrassing. Future employers will probably search for your child's name on Google and Facebook.
  • Emphasise to your child that they should never agree to meet with anyone they have "met" on Facebook (or any other internet-based social network), without a parent or responsible, trusted adult present.

When Louise Williams' teenage daughters were communicating with each other via Facebook recently, her son was watching from his flat several suburbs away. He thought it was hilarious, mainly because the girls live in the same house.

Yes, their bedrooms are next to each other, Louise says.

"But, like many teenagers they bump into each other in cyberspace as often as in the living room."

Facebook is a powerful social networking space. But for many parents who grew up squabbling with their siblings over access to the family phone it's a new frontier.

Messages, comments, conversations and photos which were once exchanged personally are simply posted for many to see. Just how many depends on your child's Facebook privacy settings and the lengths they've gone to build up lists of cyber friends.

Facebook is mostly a positive tool for social interaction, says Dr Kirsty Young, a specialist in education and social media at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Children under 13 years old are not permitted to register for Facebook.

However, Facebook gradually exposed more and more personal information on its pages. As public search functions and third parties were able to reveal that information, there was global debate over privacy, the on-selling of personal information by web companies and the potential for cyberbullying or stalking on social media pages.

Some Facebook users even launched Quit Facebook Day, commenting that "Facebook makes it damn difficult for the average user to understand or manage" their privacy settings.

After much bad press, in August 2011 Facebook made sharing and privacy options more visible, by introducing a dropdown menu on the Status and Wall pages. The best way to understand these new  functions is to read the Facebook Blog entry "Making it easier to share with who you want".

Five ways to help your child manage Facebook

  1. Start by signing up your own Facebook account, work out how to make a few friends and spend a couple of hours navigating your way around. In fact, why not start with the new School A to Z Facebook pages where you can tell us what information you need to help your child succeed at school.
  2. Find the privacy settings in the drop down menu by clicking on 'Account' in the top right hand corner on the page. Facebook organises privacy settings into 'Everyone', 'Friends of friends', 'Friends only' and 'Customise', which can restrict access to an individual or small group.
  3. Search for your child online yourself. You may find that their profile information including their name, photo, and a list of names and photos of all their friends can be accessed by anyone with a computer.
  4. Then, ask your child to show you how their privacy settings are configured and find out whether they understand them.
  5. Also ask them to show you how to block someone, how to refuse a friend request from a stranger and how to un-tag themselves from other people's photos; that is, take their searchable name off an image.

Friends only

The Australian internet advocacy group, Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), recommends all Facebook users select 'Friends only' for all functions.

There are two other important settings if you want to maximise your child's privacy.

From 'Privacy Settings' choose 'Applications and websites' then go to 'Instant personalisation'. This is the controversial program which shares information with Microsoft, Pandora and Yelp, and it requires you or your child to opt out by clicking Edit settings and un-ticking the box. You can also go to 'Search' via 'Privacy Settings' and choose to disable the public search function in the same way.     

How young is too young?

Children under 13 years old are not permitted to register for Facebook and accounts will be deleted if the company is notified of an underage user.

However, it's safe to assume there are many underage Facebookers, despite the median age of Facebook users being 26.

Vice-chair of the EFA Geordie Guy says it's not an environment designed for younger children.

"As a parent you need to think about whether you would want younger children in this environment … think of it like a virtual party of young adults, and ask yourself if you would want an eight-year-old to go along," he says.

Another issue often overlooked is that Facebook is a business. Advertising is Facebook's revenue stream and if kids link to brands and businesses via Facebook they are joining commercially valuable consumer data.


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