From malt shops in the 50's to roller rinks in the 70's, every generation of teenagers has gravitated to a place they can call their own. A place absent of rules, responsibilities and most importantly parents. Ten years ago, you might have found teens hanging out in the food court at the local mall. Today, teens opt for a virtual hangout. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have attracted teens by the millions from around the globe. It offers them the ability to stay in contact with their network of friends, share interests and hobbies, upload pictures, post video clips, share their favorite music, join causes or groups, send birthday wishes to friends and much more.
I have both a MySpace and a Facebook page so I can keep my finger on the pulse as I minister to teens and address issues about growing up in today's culture. I must confess that my experience on these sites has helped me better understand what draws teens there. Hardly a day goes by when I don't check my own pages!
If you allow your children to participate in the social networking sites (minimum requirement of 14 years of age for MySpace and freshmen in highschool for Facebook), consider using the tips below as a contract with your teen. Have your teen initial each tip as a personal pledge to honor these boundaries. Let your teen know that you will be book-marking his or her page and checking the content from time to time (either by logging onto his or her account directly or accessing it as an approved "friend"). Emphasize that it is not an issue of trust, but rather an issue of concern for his or her safety.
Rules for Social Networking Sites
Principle to follow: Remember that all space is really "His space." Would your page make God smile? Would others come away knowing you are a Christian? When it comes to the social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, 1 Chronicles 29:11 sums it up: "Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the splendor and the majesty, for everything in the heavens and on earth belongs to You. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom, and You are exalted as head over all"(NIV, emphasis added).
- Utilize the privacy controls and set your page to private (MySpace only). Your friends will still be able to locate you and send a request to be added to your friend list. Setting your page to "private" adds an extra level of protection. It sends a clear message to predators that you do not wish to be contacted by online strangers and that you desire to use the site as a means to communicate with your circle of friends. If your page is open to the public, it is the equivalent of inviting people into your home and allowing them to rifle through your photo albums, read your journals, notes or diaries. It becomes an open book, available to any of the recently estimated nine million or so individuals on the World Wide Web.
Note to parents: MySpace users who are 18 years or older are banned from sending a "friend request" to users who are under 16 years of age, unless they are able to provide an e-mail address or last name of the person to whom they are sending the request. Parents should be aware that this does not safeguard against older teens, including friends of older siblings, from contacting children under age 16.
- Never share your last name, city, phone numbers, screen name, email address or other information that would make it easy for strangers to identify you or contact you one on one.
Note to parents: Facebook requires that participants register by first and last name. This should be fine as long as your child only joins his or her school network. I strongly recommend that you not allow your kids to additionally join their "city" network, which in essence makes their page viewable by adults of all ages in the same city network.
- Ask your parents to read over your profile with you to see if you have disclosed information that would enable a stalker or predator to track you down. I know this sounds creepy, but try to view your page objectively through the eyes of someone who may have malicious intent. You can never assume that only "good people" are viewing your profile, even if it is set to private. They can gain access through others on your friend list or pose as someone your age. (Another reason to only accept your real-life friends!)
- Make sure your pictures are appropriate. Never upload pictures in swimsuits, pj's, or undergarments. Do not pose suggestively or seductively. It may seem funny to you, but those with malicious intent will misread it.
- Consider limiting your friend list to "real friends." Who needs 800+ online strangers as friends, anyway?
- When it comes to the comments others post on your wall/page/pictures, remember that you will be judged by the company you keep. In other words, "you are who you hang out with." If others feel comfortable coming on your page and posting inappropriate comments, whether it's sexual banter or the f-bomb, it should be a wake-up call that a character check is in order.
- If anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable online, tell your parents! If you receive a sexual solicitation, copy and paste it into an email and send it to CyberTipline.com. Don't dismiss this advice. It's important.
Note to parents: Reinforce this action item with your teen. One in five kids between the ages of 10-17 have been solicited for sex online.
- Keep in mind that many schools, teachers, colleges, employers and other organizations are searching MySpace and Facebook for information about potential students or employees. If you would put your best foot forward with them in person, do the same online.
- Remember that information you delete never really goes away. The pages are archived and many are accessible free of charge to the public. Every time you post something online, it is like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for anyone who might want to trace your journey back to its starting point — even after you are long gone!
Parents, the list above is not comprehensive. If your child is young and/or lacks maturity, you might add additional safeguards such as no profile picture, no picture or video uploads allowed, no using the blog feature, no friends unless they are real live, good friends and/or you pre-approve them. Again, you can limit the information they post and ban them from utilizing many of the features offered. You can exercise control, but you must be engaged in the process in order to know how to do this. I highly recommend that you require your child to give you his or her page log-in information and spot check the page from time to time. I view this as the "training wheels phase" during which Mom and/or Dad come(s) alongside in an effort to teach their kids to use the sites in a responsible manner. To allow them to participate without parental guidance would be similar to taking your toddler off their tricycle, placing them on a ten speed back and giving them a push down a busy street. It's only a matter of time before disaster strikes!