An e-mail in my inbox Monday morning from my editor had a scary subject line: “Help!”
When I opened the message, I read this: “My daughter is 13-years-old today and so, as promised, I let her sign up for Facebook. YIKES. Now I am freaking out over her privacy settings!”
Even for an adult, Facebook’s privacy settings are as daunting as trying to do your taxes with an abacus. For teenagers, unaware of the consequences of their online actions, using Facebook incorrectly could potentially leave a digital trail that might follow them all the way through high school, college and into the real world. What’s more, there are also creepy people out there on social networks.
Here’s what I told my editor.
First, you should sit down with children and explain that anything — stress the word anything –they post can and will be used against them on the Internet. This includes private messages and photos they believe are visible only to friends and comments they leave on people’s pictures or status updates. Although all of these things can be set to private, a friend-turned-enemy could take a screenshot of something your teenager has shared, then send it around school for all to jeer at.
Teenagers should assume that there is no such thing as private on Facebook. The company has repeatedly changed settings that were once private, to public, and there is nothing to say Facebook will not do this again. Even so, you will want to go through your child’s Facebook settings to make them as private as possible.
To begin, click on the arrow in the top right and then scroll down to Privacy Settings. Once inside, the first thing you will want to do is ensure that anything your child posts on Facebook is only visible to Friends, not the Public.
Once you have done this, methodically go through every setting — be aware, there are dozens of them — and change your child’s account to only be visible to Friends.
I would recommend leaving the “Who can send you friend requests?” tab open to Everyone for the first week or so. Like a child’s first few days in school, let him corral friends on the social network, then you can go back into this option and change it to only allow Friends of Friends later.
To prevent an excerpt from your child’s Facebook page from showing up in public search engines, including Google and Bing, be sure to go to the Apps tab in the privacy settings and click on “Public search.” Then make sure you disable “Enable public search.”
One of the most important privacy settings is how personal information is used in ads. This is where Facebook uses you, or your likes, in advertisements on the Web site. For example, if you like Coca-Cola, Facebook will show your friends ads for Coke using your name as part of the advertisement. (A bit creepy, I know.)
To change this, click on the Facebook Ads tab. Then click on the two links that say “Edit third party ad settings” and “Edit social ads setting” and change these options to “No one.”
When I talked to my editor later in the day, she mentioned that her child had logged into the new Facebook account on a friend’s iPhone that day. This, you should stress, is a very bad idea. If your child forgets to log out, the person can now see everything on their Facebook page, including private chats and messages.
Just like teaching a teenager how to park a car until they get it right, I would recommend sitting over a child’s shoulder and watching them log in and then log out of his or her Facebook account in a way that doesn’t save the password.
You can see other tips from Facebook on the site’s Teen Safety Area.
Oh, and one last thing: Friend your teenager on Facebook.