Facebook for teenagers – a parent’s guide

Ready for a staggering statistic? Almost half of all Australians are on Facebook. Chances are your teenagers are using it, and you probably are too. Facebook has ‘friended’ us big time, and it seems we’ve given it the big ‘Like’ thumbs up. But there are still plenty of parents who do not use the site, and are wondering what it’s all about. Even seasoned users should think about the role Facebook is playing in their teenagers’ lives.

There are many benefits to social networking services, and some of the issues raised in this ‘Guide to Facebook’ may not be an issue for you or your teenager. Some teens, however, will always be more vulnerable than others when it comes to the pitfalls of social media.

What is it?

Facebook is a social networking service and website that launched in February 2004. It has more than 750 million active users worldwide, and around 10.5 million users in Australia.

Users create a profile which must include a name and may include a photo and other personal information such as birthday, school, work, likes, interests. They then add ‘friends’, post ‘status updates’, photos, videos and links. They interact with other friends via their ‘wall’, chat or messages. Users can make comments, form and join groups, and use a ‘Like’ button to build an online personality. Many third party applications integrate with Facebook, such as games and other sites.

The Facebook mission “is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”.

Users must be 13+.

What teens like about Facebook

Identity

  • It gives teens the ability to construct an online identity via their profile picture, the information they choose to disclose about themselves, the photos and videos they choose to share and the interactions they have.

Privacy

  • Despite the fact that many kids are ‘friends’ with their parents, family members, neighbours or other adult members of the community, they may not reveal much of their Facebook activity to you. Only what they post to their own ‘wall’ is by default viewable to everyone on their friends list. (Even in viewing their wall you may wonder what language is being used, with the various secret teenage codes, acronyms and cyberspeak. A look at www.urbandictionary.com may help.) Messages and chat are seen only by the person they are directly communicating with. There are settings for all other material that can determine what is displayed to which users.

Social

  • Used positively, Facebook can provide companionship, social connection, entertainment, emotional support, community, arts and political engagement. Research has shown that Facebook users are more politically aware and active than most people.
  • Facebook can be of social benefit to isolated, shy and introverted teens, providing a sense of connection and a way to communicate and make new friends with other teens. Many kids find it easier to express what they are feeling via the written word than they do in person.
  • The pop-up ‘chat’ feature is popular, and teenagers’ innate ability to cyber multi-task may see them chatting, posting status updates, browsing albums and watching YouTube links simultaneously – while doing homework.

What parents might be concerned about

Identity

  • Adolescents like to try on various personas for size and may post inappropriate or unbecoming comments, photos or videos in an attempt to seem older, cooler or funny.
  • Although true internet addiction is probably quite rare, Facebook is an immersive experience that encourages frequent checking and interaction. If your teen’s use is not managed then their real-life social and family interactions could suffer.

Privacy

  • In theory it is possible to use the privacy settings to exert a good degree of control over what is seen by whom, but this is time consuming and quite complicated. It would seem that many teens don’t review or implement safety/privacy settings. This is evidenced by the many YouTube video compilations of ‘hot facebook teens’, created by trawling unrestricted profiles for revealing pictures.
  • Fictitious names are popular but the behaviour associated with anonymity (cyberbullying, provocation, innuendo) do not seem to be as much an issue on Facebook as it is with other social networking sites such as Tumblr and Formspring.
  • ‘Hacking’ or ‘hijacking’ between friends and siblings is quite common and may lead to malicious behaviour from perpetrators assuming another person’s identity, or embarrassment about the information that has been accessed.
  • Strangers can connect easily with your teen by sending a ‘friend’ request. It is possible for older people to create false profiles specifically to contact vulnerable teens.

Social

  • It is possible for teens (or anyone) to obsess over their online popularity and constantly check for friend requests, ‘likes’, comments and responses to the material they post, to become anxious about what to post or what others may be posting about them.
  • Gathering ‘friends’ seems like a sport. Do you wonder how your teen knows 672 people? Parents are encouraged to know the company your teenager keeps in real life. On Facebook, that’s impossible.
  • Conversely, teens might become distressed about their lack of friends or the perceived fun their peers are having. School cliques are replicated online.
  • Some teens post compromising photographs of themselves – and others – drunk, passed out, with drug paraphernalia or in sexually provocative poses or attire. There may be little comprehension of how online activity impacts on reputations, or how it might spill over into real life – there have been recent cases in the US where teens have been expelled from school or unable to get into college due to the nature of material they’ve posted.
  • Exposure to and/or use of swearing, sexual and inappropriate content is likely.

Main risks

  • Distraction from all else. Internet addiction – recognised as a spectrum disorder so it may be mild – can lead to disconnection from family, lack of sleep, poor academic performance, anxiety and depression.
  • Cyberbullying. Flaming, insults, threats and humiliation can be found on Facebook, and the fact that the abuse is most likely coming from their classmates can impact very negatively on school life.
  • Account hacking by strangers or bullies.
  • Private information/posts/content becoming public or being accessed by unwanted people.
  • Friends posting embarrassing or inappropriate images of your child.

Online safety

  • Phone numbers, home addresses, passwords, bank details and other personal information should not be shared.
  • Make sure your child does not share their password with friends.
  • Ensure your teenager has entered their correct birth date. Facebook has extra safety features that are enabled for users aged 13 to 17 to prevent their profiles and posts from showing up in public search results, and so that if they share their location through Places, only their Facebook friends can see it. (However, use of Places or other location apps that pinpoint exactly where your teen is are not advisable).
  • Be wary of strangers who ask to be friends with your teens. If your child doesn’t know the person in real life, it’s worth wondering why they want to be friends online.
  • Private party/event invitations should be kept private – make sure your kids understand the potential dangers of unwanted gatecrashers.
  • Posts about illegal or incriminating activities or photos that are revealing or provocative should never be posted on the web. Ask your teen to monitor photos of themselves that are posted by friends.
  • Use Facebook’s recently enhanced privacy settings. Users can now create lists of friends  to be more specific about who sees certain updates and content.
  • If your teenager is being harassed or receiving unwelcome attention from a ‘friend’, they should ‘unfriend’ that person – and block them and/or report them.
  • Kids need to know not to be tempted by the cover of anonymity to harass, threaten, humiliate or stalk other people. IP addresses and other markers make their every online move highly traceable. Talk with them about the real life consequences of cyber bullying.

Innovations and improvements to privacy and content management are ongoing and it is advisable for the whole family to take the time to review and understand the indepth Facebook Safety Advice section and keep up to date with changes.

Summary

Used with common sense and online safety measures in place, Facebook can be a great place to connect, hang out and communicate with friends, family and schoolmates, stay in touch with events and people all over the world and be educated and entertained by friend’s posts and links.

If you are concerned about your teen’s use of social networking sites, or they seem a bit ‘obsessed’ with it or depressed, try to get them to share with you what’s going on online. Kids should be encouraged to balance their online activities with positive real-life experiences such as sport, outings or creative endeavours.

More articles/blogs on this topic

What do you think? Do you ever look at your teen’s Facebook page? Do their Facebook ‘friends’ concern you? We would love to hear your experiences. Please leave a comment below.

 

Comments

  1. We have an “on and off ” issue of siblings hacking into each others accounts and posting things – mostly funny – but you can see where it could lead. They now owe each other $100 for all future incidents of hacking – it has suddenly stopped happening.

    • Technology – providing new ways for siblings to wreak havoc on each others’ lives! Just what we need… 🙂

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