No matter how old your kid is, you've likely confronted questions surrounding his social media usage. You may have posted pictures of your baby on Facebook, received a notification that your toddler was tagged in a photo by a well-meaning friend or had your kid beg you for his own Club Penguin/Twitter/Facebook account.
In fact, by 2010, 92% of toddlers had an online presence, which included photos on Facebook and social media profiles.
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How you handle your child's web presence has serious implications for both you and your kid's finances, not to mention his safety. According to Norton’s 2010 Online Family Report, 62% of kids have had a negative experience online, and 33% of kids have downloaded a virus. Two in five children have had an anonymous person try to add them as a friend on a social site.
Besides common safety concerns, you'll also want to make sure your child doesn't do something to compromise his reputation as he gets older, applies for scholarships and searches for first jobs and internships.
We talked to Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, and put together a social media guide to walk you through creating a safe and appropriate social media environment for your child.
1. Google His Name
Best time to do this: As soon as you've chosen the name for your unborn baby.
Why: It's good practice to Google your kid's potential name before you name him, just to make sure you aren't accidentally naming him after a convict, or some disgraced CEO. It's up to you how seriously you want to take what you find. Famous porn star? Might want to choose another name. Punk rocker from Utah? Meh, it's up to you.
How to do it: Try all combinations of first, middle and last names, plus middle initials.
2. Set Up a Gmail Account
Best time to do this: Now, if your child doesn't already have one.
Why: Maybe Gmail won't be the dominant email five years from now. But in case it's still popular, you might as well reserve your child's name, even if she's young. It will be easier to get Alana.Hughes@gmail.com now, so she won't have to resort to firstname.lastname@example.org 10 years from now.
How to do it: If your child is too young for email, set the account up yourself and use it to keep organized. Email pictures to your family and receive coupons from Toys "R" Us. When she is old enough to be able to use it for communicating with friends and family, hand it over, but retain the right to log in and monitor her activity until you're comfortable with her taking it private, perhaps in her teens.
3. Buy His Domain Name
Why: You probably won't need to do this if your child has a common name, since that most likely means his domain name will be scooped up already (although it'd be worth checking). But if your child has a unique name, buying the domain name (i.e. LiamKafka.com) will ensure that if he ever wants to use it, he won't have to pay $6,000 to someone from China who is squatting on it. (This happens.) It's also another way of managing what comes up on Google when someone searches for his name.
How to do it: Search for the domain name at CheapNames.com, and if it's available, you can buy it for about $10 a year. You can leave the page blank now, or populate it with pictures of cupcakes--just the fact that you own it is good enough. (Don't populate it with pictures of your child or identifying information, though, as this can be dangerous.)
4. Teach Her Good Internet Practices
When: Second grade is a good time to start, but review them every year.
Why: "No technology can take the place of talking to your kids about the importance of managing and protecting their own privacy," says Knorr. Your child will be poking around on the internet--if not at your own home, at a friend's home or at school--so be proactive and teach her as much as you can about staying safe.
How to do it: Here are some basic rules to teach kids from an early age.
- Get permission from you before setting up a profile on any social networking site.
- Don't talk to or accept any invitations from strangers to connect.
- Never post private information like phone numbers or addresses.
- Block anyone who is being mean or harassing. But don't delete conversations; if things escalate, it's important to be able to show everything to an adult.
- If you feel uncomfortable or bullied, talk to a parent or another trusted adult about the issue. (You can find more resources on bullying at StopBullying.gov and NCPC.org.)
- Never engage in bullying toward other people online.
- Always log out of your social media accounts when leaving a computer, especially a public or school computer.
- Never give out passwords to anyone besides a parent.
- Think before posting! "Nothing is private online, nor can we truly ever “delete” anything from the Internet–so teach kids to self-reflect before they self-reveal," Knorr says.
- Find more tips at ConnectSafely.org.
5. Consider Monitoring Kids' Activity
Best time to do this: Once they're using the computer.
Why: With the proliferation of social networks, they could get in trouble without your knowing it.
6. Give Her Social Media Training Wheels
When: Once you're confident she understands the rules of safe social media.
Why: She'll probably want to hang out online long before she reaches the age when Facebook allows her. So let her play in a safe area designed just for kids, with strong privacy controls in place.
How to do it: You can start with Scuttlepad, for kids aged 6 to 11, where all image and video content is approved by moderators and kids write updates composed of pre-approved words. Webkinz is a another social network, and Disney's Club Penguin has an educational component and live moderators. WhatsWhat.me, for kids 7 and up, is a tween social network where moderators actually discuss with kids and parents why certain posts are taken down. Everloop, for age 8 to 13, offers parental controls that let you set permissions and keep tabs on your kid's activity. There's also Yoursphere for kids 9 and up. When she's aged out of these kiddie sites, you can send her to Fanlala, which has an emphasis on following teen pop stars.
Also be sure to review the parents' section of any site your kid wants to join. "And review the site’s rules with your kids, too," says Knorr, "so they understand what is expected–and what they should expect from others."
7. Help Him Set Up a Facebook Account
When: Facebook is now considering letting kids under 13 have accounts with parental supervision. Until then, stick with the 13-year-old rule.
While some parents like to set up accounts for their babies (5% of children under 2 have their own social media profiles), creating an account for your child is not only against Facebook rules, it puts his name and information out on the internet for identity thieves to find. Think about the security questions associated with your accounts: your first grade teacher, first pet, town you were born in. Now all of that will be associated with your child's name online.
Why: Eventually your child will be clamoring for a Facebook account to keep up with invitations to birthday parties, stay connected with friends and share pictures.
How to do it: Sit with him when you open the account and help him populate his information. Help him choose a strong password, make sure to walk through the privacy controls so that only his friends see his information and have him friend you with full access to his activities and wall.
8. Help Her Set Up a Twitter Account
When: Age 15 or later, depending on her maturity level.
Why: Your child can follow Twitter accounts that interest her, like @Disney, her favorite sports team or, of course, @JustinBieber. But it has a downside. "It allows users to post anything they want to, which can get kids in trouble if they say something in the heat of the moment," says Knorr. "Its location-sharing features also make the site not for kids, and iffy even for teens."
How to do it: Sit with your kid when she first sets up the account, and set it to protected. This means she has to approve all followers, and her tweets will only be seen by approved followers--plus they can't be retweeted or searched for on Google. Then check on her activity daily from your own Twitter account (which she's approved as a follower) and review with her tweets you think weren't appropriate until she's learned the ropes.
9. Help Him Set up a LinkedIn Account
When: LinkedIn's policy sets its users at 18 or older.
Why: Even though your kid might not have settled on a career yet, it's still a useful site for:
- Listing clubs, awards and other recognitions
- Collecting recommendations from teachers, professors, bosses, etc.
- Keeping in contact with professors and other grown-ups he meets who could help him network in the future
- Searching for internships
How to do it: Review the account before it's published with your seasoned eye, and reiterate that this forum is different than Twitter or Facebook--he should keep it professional.
What Do You Think?
Social media networks are evolving all the time, so this list could be outdated in a matter of months. And every parent has different comfort levels.
Tell us--have you helped set your kid up with a social media account?