These days, the words "social networking" and "social media" seem to stare at you from every page of every publication. But as commonplace as these words may be, they can still possess an impenetrable mystique for us parents. Even if you have a Facebook page or a Twitter account, it's hard to comprehend how your child fritters away his evenings clicking through them.
Your kids grew up with these websites. For them, it's not a fad. They don't call it "social media." It's simply a part of life. It's a space where they can hang out with friends, stay connected, and try on various personas. And each site opens different ways to do so.
Dr. Larry Magid, author of MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking helped us compile this list of the top sites you should know -- and some information to help you understand the distinctions between them.
With more than 750 million active users worldwide and an Academy Award winning story (see: The Social Network), Facebook has become infamous and ubiquitous. Your child definitely has an account. Most of your friends probably have one too.
Inside scoop: As with all of these sites, every user has her own profile page. Here you can post photos, status updates, your favorite music, movies, and even your marital status. But the centerpiece of every profile page is the "Wall." This is a space for your friends to write you notes or to post videos and photos. It also functions as a log of your own activity on the site. Everything on the wall is visible to the public, unless you change your privacy settings to only allow friends or restrict certain people (as in, your parents, and bosses).
How to adjust privacy settings:
- The blue bar at the top of every Facebook page is your navigation tool. Click on Account, in the right-hand corner.
- A drop-down menu will appear. Select Privacy Settings.
- To make limit all of the content on your page to friends only, select Friends Only.
- Click the blue button to Apply These Settings.
Inside scoop: Twitter is like Facebook's cute cousin. The site has no content other than user updates of no more than 140 characters. These updates, called "Tweets," range from witty one-liners to shared New York Times articles to what you ate for breakfast. Since users don't even have a profile page, you would have to Tweet personal information in order to share it.
Because of its minimalist aesthetic, Twitter can be less intuitive than Facebook or MySpace. Maybe you've signed up -- but how can you find your kid or other friends?
Tips for use:
Here are some steps to find your child on Twitter:
- Log-in to Twitter. You will be directed to your home page.
- The black bar at the top of your screen is your navigation tool. Click on Who to Follow.
- A page will appear with Twitter accounts suggested for you based on whom you follow. You should see three blue tabs: View Suggestions; Browse Interests; Find Friends.
- Click on Find Friends. If you have a Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail or AOL email account, allow Twitter to search your email contacts.
- Alternatively, you may type your child's name into the search bar on the upper right. But be aware that you may not find your child. For privacy reasons, she may not have linked her full name to her account--in which case she's one step ahead of you.
- Now that you know your child's Twitter "handle," as in (@caredotcom), you can see who she follows and do a search within Twitter for her handle to see who is "tweeting" about her - and what they're saying.
What if you don't want everyone to read your -- or your child's -- Tweets?
Here's how to restrict your Twitter account, so only friends can see your updates:
- Again, look to the black navigation bar at the top of your screen. In the right-hand corner, you should see your Twitter name and profile photo. Click on this.
- Once you click, a drop-down menu will appear. Choose the first option: Settings.
- Scroll down the page until you see Tweet Privacy.
- Check the box next to Protect my Tweets.
Inside scoop: Formspring is a question-and-answer based social website that allows users to ask and answer questions, which then appear on their profile page. Questions can be asked anonymously.
If, as a parent, you have anxiously followed the rise of cyberbullying, Formspring probably sounds familiar. In March of 2010, a 17-year-old girl committed suicide after reportedly receiving a number of anonymous and insulting comments on the site.
While this information might be enough to ban it, take a minute to reflect. It would be comforting to pin cyberbullying onto one website, to say, it only happens there -- but it doesn't. It can happen anywhere. It need not even be direct or obvious. Indirect bullying, such as exclusion, hurts more kids online than the direct kind. Facebook allows them to see photos of events to which they were not invited. MySpace is yet another space to feel ignored or irrelevant. The cleverness of a friend's Tweets may make them feel inadequate.
So before you write off Formspring, know that users can refuse to accept anonymous questions and can easily block others from asking them any to begin with.
How to block users from asking anonymous questions:
- Above the light-blue navigation bar, you should see three navy buttons. Click on the middle one: Settings.
- Click on Privacy.
- Select the option that reads "only Formspring members who share their name can ask you questions."
- Click the Save Changes button located at the bottom of the page.
Where Else Could You Find Your Child?
4. Tumblr: A site for short, usually photo-based, blog posts. Users can enable a feature that allows others to ask questions anonymously. Privacy settings are available to block users who post inappropriate comments.
5. FourSquare: A location-based social site that allows users to "check in" via cellphone to a location, like a favorite restaurant or hang-out spot, in order to alert friends to their whearabouts and/or recommend menu items. For kids, it's better not to share location information. This is disabled on the mobile application above the share button. Recommend your child not include a picture of her face but rather a cartoon character or logo to avoid having people know who they are.
6. MySpace: Like Facebook, MySpace is a place where your child can chat, share photos and videos, and simply hang out. Unlike Facebook, MySpace's profile pages are fully customizable, earning a devoted following among the more creative teen set. Be sure to look at the MySpace privacy settings and talk to your child about settings they should use.
7. LiveJournal: A more traditional blogging site. Comments can be posted anonymously.
8. myYearbook: A social networking site in the same tradition of Facebook and MySpace -- but created by high school students. Its distinguishing feature is a virtual currency program called "Lunch Money" that users can earn through winning games on the site.
Social networking is a growing field, and new sites are continually appearing. Try to stay informed but remember that you don't need to know everything about them to be a good and responsible parent. The basic rules of life -- morality, malice, and meaning -- haven't changed. They've just expanded to the digital world.As Dr. Magid says, "I was a soccer dad. I don't play and I barely know the rules, but that didn't keep me from going to the games or understanding sportsmanship. That didn't keep me from being a good dad."