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How to keep your children safe on Facebook

Protect them from predators and their peers

Boasting 500 million users worldwide and still growing, Facebook is now ubiquitous.

Because of its popularity, minors have jumped onto the social media bandwagon, too, and they use networking the same way adults do - to share pictures, connect with friends, organise events, and play social games. And that can be a problem. For the most part, Facebook provides a fun and safe way for users of all ages to communicate with their pals. But because kids and teens are, well, kids and teens, they're the ones most at risk of falling victim to the dangers of Facebook.

With a bit of strategic parental guidance, you can educate your kids about the potential hazards of social media and give them the tools they need to protect themselves from online predators, guard their personal information, preserve their online reputation, and avoid suspicious downloads that could harm your PC.

Facebook and kids

An iStrategyLabs study documents the growth rates of Facebook profiles in the US based on age, gender, location, education level and interests. The study shows that from January 2009 to January 2010, the 13-to-17-year-old age group grew about 88 percent in the US, jumping from about 5.7 million teenage Facebook users to almost 10.7 million. Those figures, of course, don't include minors who lied about their age upon creating their profile.

Despite a legal requirement that kids must be 13 or older to sign up for Facebook, many younger children are using the service. Because no perfect age-verification system exists, younger kids are able to slip by unnoticed through falsifying their age. (For instance, I have one friend whose 12-year-old daughter listed her birth year as 1991 on Facebook, thereby claiming that she was 19 years old.)

The safety and public-policy teams at Facebook are aware of their young audience, and the site has rolled out privacy settings specifically for the under-18 set. Users between the ages of 13 and 17 get what Facebook's privacy policy calls a "slightly different experience". Minors do not have public search listings created for them when they sign up for Facebook, meaning their accounts cannot be found on general search engines outside of Facebook.

The 'Everyone' setting is not quite as open for minors as it is for adults. If a minor's privacy settings are set to 'Everyone', that includes only friends, friends of friends, and people within the child's verified school or work network. However, the 'Everyone' setting still allows adults to search for minors by name and send them friend requests (and vice versa), unless the account owner manually changes that. Also, only people within a minor's 'Friends of Friends' network can message them.

Facebook recently premiered a new location-based service called Places, which has some restrictions for minors as well. Minors can share their location through Places only with people on their Friends lists, even if their privacy settings are set to 'Everyone'.

As for the teens who lie about how old they are, Facebook does have a way of verifying age. If, for instance, a 19-year-old is mostly friends with 13- and 14-year-olds, and they seem to be taking lots of photos together, then Facebook might suspect that the user is actually 12 or 13 - and then it may flag the user's page for removal or give the user a warning.

NEXT PAGE: The basics

  1. Protect them from predators
  2. The basics
  3. Cyberbullying
  4. Stranger danger
  5. Monitoring behaviour

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