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Social Media: How to Talk to Your Kids About the Web

By Alan Neuhauser | August 17, 2012 6:11pm | Updated on August 17, 2012 8:19pm
DNAinfo asked the experts about children and social media, often a challenging issue for parents to navigate.
DNAinfo asked the experts about children and social media, often a challenging issue for parents to navigate.
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Flickr/James Emery

NEW YORK — Time to have The Talk with your kids.

No, not that talk. The other one. About Twitter and Facebook and Myspace.

The student social-media frenzy starts afresh when school resumes in September. New personal pages go online, gossip zings from hallways to the web, and shiny electronic devices are proudly displayed and shared.

How can parents possibly protect their children from the onslaught — whether its teaching that Facebook posts stay online forever, preventing identity theft, or shielding young eyes from the Internet's dark corners?

DNAinfo.com New York spoke with local education, technology and child psychology experts, who each recommended a multi-pronged approach:

1. Talk early, and talk often.
Most kids become interested in social media around third grade, when children typically begin separating from their parents and become more interested in their peers, said Caroline Knorr, 45, a mother of one and parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that evaluates media for children and families.

Hence, parents should start talking with their kids about social media and the Web "as soon as they're noticing that their children are aware of it," said Daniel Hoffman, 36, an instructor at Columbia University's Teacher's College studying children and technology.

"Even at a young age, kids are aware that their parents have phones and are checking their messages and Tweeting. As long as there's some recognition by a child, there's some opportunity to teach a child why I'm doing this, and as an adult, what's my thought process. What do I have to consider while I'm doing this?"

Knorr agreed.

"There's a ton of opportunities and a lot of great stuff out there, and we believe in a lot of the great aspects of social media," she said. "But we really believe parents should guide kids and talk to them to make sure they don't talk to strangers, they don't upload anything that could embarrass another person or themselves."

2. Filter, friend and follow.
Build a filter, not a wall: When it comes to young children, don't ban them from using iPads, iPhones, Androids and other gadgets, experts said. Let them watch how you use the devices, then watch as they play with them the first few times.

Later, as your child grows, periodically check which pages and apps your child visited and used.

"There's this pass-back effect, where the parent might pass off a device for the child to use the app," said Cameron Lawrence Fadjo, 32, a research scientist at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia. "It gives the parent a chance the really screen and really see what's being used by the child."

The goal should be to "trust, but verify," Hoffman said. "You want to establish some boundaries and give your children some freedom and responsibility…. If your child has some working knowledge of what your experiences were as a parent using social media, those will carry over to their experiences with their friends."

Software filters can also limit or track content at home. The programs vary in price, features, and effectiveness — some merely block certain sites, others allow certain users to see which sites others have visited. None, however, are foolproof.

"They are kind of a first line of defense," Hoffman said. "But it's never going to replace having meaningful conversations with your child about protecting your identity, using secure practices, and things like that."

Finally, once your child joins Facebook, Myspace, or Twitter, friend or follow your child and his or her friends — they might post things that won't show up on your own child's page. Be sure to check who else is connecting online with your child, too.

3. How young is too young?
When should you allow your child to join Facebook, Myspace, or Twitter?

Facebook and Myspace prohibit children younger than 13 from joining their sites without parents' permission. If you discover your under-13 child secretely has a page on either site, you can cancel it yourself or report it to Facebook anonymously.

Otherwise, "there's not a hard-and-fast rule," Hoffman said. "It would really come down to the maturity level of the student and the type of relationship I have with that student or child, and my understanding of that child's awareness of the responsibilities that come with using the tools that are social media."

When it comes to posting photos, however, "kids shouldn't do it independently until age 13," Knorr suggested.

Pictures can inadvertently give away private information, she said, such as an address marker in the background, or embedded "geolocation" or "geotagging" — embedded information on where a photo was take. Typically, cameras and cell phones allow users to disable geotagging, but while the setting is enabled, geographic information can sometimes be extracted from a photo once it's downloaded from the Internet.

4. Consider training wheels.
Parents can steer children younger than 13 toward kid-friendly social media sites that help train them for Facebook and Twitter. Each takes a different approach: some manually screen each photo and video uploaded to the site, others prevent members from using certain words in their posts. Some also require membership fees. Check each site to see which fits best:

When scoping out a site, parents should "look for whether or not the site has 24-hour monitoring, you want to determine whether or not the site has open chat, which allows children to type in anything they want to, or if they have canned chat — you select from a selection of phrases you want to say," Knorr said.

When it comes to pay sites, "I would recommend parents let their kids play for free without joining, see if they like it, and consider an upgrade later," she advised. "I would try and have parents resist that impulse buy. Kids might get tired of it, there might be a new website later."

5. Get real.
No matter what precautions parents take, kids are ultimately going to see some amount of sex and violence on the Internet, the experts said. The key is to establish a relationship and environment with your children in which they'll feel comfortable asking about what they've seen.

"The best thing you can do is keep the conversation going," Knorr said. "You're not going to be able to control everything.

"If it's about sex, you can talk about maybe the characters on a TV show you watch: 'Do you think that was a healthy thing that character did?' Just get involved. Insert yourself between the information that's coming at your kid, and your kid."