Monthly Archives: September 2011

Are your kids too young for Facebook?

Had a fabulous time at the Montreal Families Magazine Parenting Workshop this past Sunday. We were thrilled to see a capacity crowd of concerned moms (and some dads) come out to hear me and study skills expert Carolyn Melmed speak on a gorgeous, sunny September afternoon.

A number of great questions came out of the audience after my presentation, some of which I’ve heard from parents before. I figure if one parent is wondering or worrying about something, chances are there are plenty of others out there with the same question, so I’m going to focus on them one at a time in upcoming blog posts. Today’s subject is a really common question – what is the right age to let our kids get Facebook accounts?

The answer to this depends on a few things — your child’s interest, maturity levels, responsibility, readiness as well as your personal values and comfort with technology. Just as it would be impossible to answer a question about what is the right age for learning how to read or developing an interest in romantic relationships, knowing when to let your kids onto Facebook depends on a number of factors.

First of all, Facebook itself has determined that kids under 13 should not become members, and they state this on their registration page. Getting around that is as simple as fudging the birth year information (which is always a good idea for privacy and identity theft reasons anyway), but parents have to feel comfortable with breaking this simple rule. Some parents are not.

Next you have ask what they intend to do on the site. If it’s mostly for the gaming, well, there are plenty of other games on the Internet (and on gaming systems), but the truth is that Facebook games are a relatively harmless way to spend time on the site. Raising virtual potatoes on Farmville is no one’s definition of risky behaviour.

If they want it because “everyone else has it,” I’m sympathetic but skeptical. First of all, not everyone has it, but an awful lot of kids do. And it’s hard (but not impossible or even inadvisable) to resist the tremendous adolescent social pressure to be like everyone else. I’ve only recently forgiven my parents for banning television on school days when I was a kid. Missing the previous evening’s broadcast of Charlie’s Angels certainly had repercussions in the schoolyard the next day, but my grades steadily improved without the distraction. And I turned out mostly OK.

How do you think your kids will manage its addictive powers? If you will have to constantly negotiate their time on Facebook, if it will cut into homework, face-to-face socialization, school, family time or reading, then think this through carefully. You may need to set up strict rules for when and how long they can be on. You will need to establish consistent consequences for breaking these rules. You will need to stick to them.

Talk to them about cyberbullying. Talk about respecting others, handling themselves with dignity. Discuss the fact that stuff on the Internet is impossible to erase. That things can be copied and forwarded an infinite number of times. They should never, ever post anything they wouldn’t want their teacher to see. Or their grandmother. Or their future boss. Or their future children.

Talk about how nuance and irony don’t play out so well in typed comments. It’s easy to misunderstand something that was meant to be a joke. They need to understand how they can easily hurt someone else through ignorance.

Are you concerned about your kids’ privacy online? You should be. Consider getting them to creatively misspell their name or use a pseudonym their friends will know. Set up a Google alert with this name too. Inform yourself about Facebook’s many privacy controls and stay abreast of new developments. Configure them to the highest degree of privacy, which still allows friends to view their posts and picture: for “only friends” (not “friends of friends”). I’m working on a post about how to do this, in case you don’t feel comfortable figuring it out on your own, so stay tuned.

Link their account to your email and keep a record of their password. Many kids resist this, but it’s a basic requirement in my eyes. You will get all notifications of friend requests, posts and tagged pictures. You will not need to read the vast majority of them (which would be a chore), but you will be able to monitor their activity quite easily.

Insist they friend you. And never, ever comment on their walls or posts. Having a parent is just too embarrassing for words when you are 12 or 14, so respect that.

Occasionally review their home feeds (also called news feeds) with them. Not as a punishment or lecture, but as a conversation. What are their friends talking about? What kind of language is used? Does anything make them or you uncomfortable? Talk about that.

As time goes on, and they demonstrate consistent responsibility, they can earn more and freedom. You will need to do these things less often. They can earn their privacy, their passwords, the right to link their account to their own email. Don’t abuse the freedom you are given, but keep a close eye until you feel confident they are capable of handling themselves appropriately.

All of this begs the question: “What is risky behaviour?” In a nutshell, it’s activities that could potentially lead to harm, both for your child or those around them. It can interfere with other normal activities in their lives. It can cause them to make poor choices. It can be immoral, illegal or unhealthy.

So where would Facebook fit into that definition?

One research study found that spending time on Facebook tends to lower kids’ grades, promote narcissistic tendencies and lead to anxiety and depression. But the same study also found that the social media site can help kids hone their empathetic tendencies by offering each other support online. They also found it could help introverted teens learn how to interact with others in a way that made them feel more comfortable.

There are a lot of reasons why parents might not want their kids on Facebook until they feel they are old enough. Some parents just try to delay it as long as possible. There is so simple pat answer to this question.

What did I do? Well, as I wrote in this Montreal Families Magazine article, I allowed my twins to sign on to Facebook when they were 11 years old. My husband and I felt we could use it as an opportunity to regularly monitor what they were up to (11-year-olds are far more compliant than 13-year-olds, as a general rule), and it would open many possibilities for discussion and dialogue. Which it has. We’ve been very happy with this decision. But our 8-year-old is a different kid, requiring a different set of parenting strategies, and we aren’t so sure the same approach will work for her down the line.

You need to find your own comfort zone. You need to explain your rational to your child. And you need to maintain a careful eye on how they are handling this tremendous responsibility.

Keeping our kids safe – what I’ll be talking about this Sunday

I’m really excited to be a featured speaker this Sunday at Montreal Families Magazine’s first ever Parenting Workshop, along with study skills and homework expert Carolyn Melmed. Space is filling up fast, so if you’ll be in Montreal this weekend, click on the link above and reserve your seat now.

I thought it might be useful to offer readers a quick overview of what I’ll be covering. Called “The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviours,” I’ll be talking about why it’s never too early to prepare your child to deal with the many confusing and conflicting messages they get concerning high-risk activities. What does smoking have to do with your preschooler? Why would you worry about Facebook or drinking alcohol if your kid is in grade 2? And if you already have a high schooler, I’ll talk about why it’s not too late to put prevention strategies into play.

To better understand the answers to these questions, I’ll be offering an overview of what high-risk activities are, and providing surprising information on when kids first start experimenting with them. I’ll be talking about the current research on children’s and adolescent’s brain development, and how understanding how their minds work can help us better tailor our prevention strategies. I’ll provide specific, concrete and practical age-based strategies for how to prepare your kids, so that they are better able to resist peer and media influence and develop important coping strategies. Worried your teen is already in trouble? I will tell you what your options are for seeking help. I will also point parents towards online resources for more specific information on different risk activities.

Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested in learning more about thinking ahead.

Can’t make it this Sunday? Not in Montreal? Interested in bringing me in to speak to parents or teachers at your child’s school or community centre? Email me at alissasklar@hotmail.com to discuss the range of workshops I can offer for parents, educators and students on high risk behaviours, Internet safety and more.

Is it ever OK to spy on your teens?

On Monday evening, I was invited to speak about digital safety to a group of parents of 8th graders at a local high school. It was a great group of people, energetic, informed and enthusiastic about keeping their kids safe. They had so many questions, we ended up staying some time after the session was supposed to end.

It was abundantly clear that thy were very concerned. And somewhat at a loss for how to implement some of my recommendations with their 13 and 14-year-olds.

I understand that. Ideally, we should begin introducing these rules when they log on to their first Club Penguin or Webkinz account in elementary school. I had a harsh lesson in setting up Internet safety rules early: my then 5-year-old typed “Elmo” into a YouTube search at a friend’s house three years ago, and saw some homemade video with a puppet murder scene that left her with nightmares for months.

It’s one thing if they grow up knowing that mom and/or dad need to give permission to set up accounts on websites, that parents need access to all passwords until it’s decided they are responsible and mature enough to earn their privacy, that they must never, ever clear the history from their Internet browsers. It’s all about leaving traces to prove where they’ve been and what they are doing.

But introducing this rule for the first time at 13? Yikes. I can only imagine the moaning and groaning. A number of parents in the room were clearly anticipating the battles that lay ahead of them when they went home to announce this new policy.

But there is no shortcut. It needs to be done.

I compared it to driving a car. We would never imagine handing the keys to our car to a 14-year-old. They are too young, too inexperienced, too immature to handle the responsibility. Possibly they are not even physiologically capable yet — their legs may be too short to reach the brake and gas pedals. They might hurt themselves or others, or cause damage. And yet we don’t always question the wisdom of allowing our kids to make use of the incredibly powerful, public communication tools that exist online, often without any adult supervision at all. There can still be damange; people can get very hurt.

This brings me to one particularly interesting question brought up at the meeting. One parent asked about spying software available to record keystrokes or copy the browser history, even if your devious teenager finds a way to erase it. Basically, he wanted to know if it’s OK to spy on your kids.

My answer? It depends.

Ideally, we don’t want to spy on them. But privacy is not a sacred right when you are 13 or 14 years old. It is a privilege that has to be earned by showing consistent responsibility. Possibly your 16 or 17-year-old has demonstrated they don’t need their Internet activity closely monitored anymore. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a single 12-year-old with the judgement skills to go it alone.

Instead of spying, start off by involving your kids in the supervision. Link their Facebook accounts to your email to start with, so that you get notifications of friend requests, pictures posted and messages. Instead of sitting around reading them, have your kid show you their home feed and profile every once in a while. Ask to look at their email in boxes. There are some fabulous conversations waiting to be had. This isn’t a lecture, it’s a discussion. Big difference. Ask them what they think of language being used, pictures being tagged. You’ll get some really interesting insights into their world.

You should check their browser histories from time to time, but you can do that with them too. I have no problem with a look at their histories without them, but that shouldn’t be the only way you do it.

Is it ever OK to spy? To log in using their passwords when they are not around? Absolutely. If you think your child is in trouble, if you are concerned about recent behaviour, possible depression, cyberbullying (whether they are victim or perpetrator), drugs, sexual health issues or violence. If your motivation is one of genuine concern for your minor child or someone they may be hurting, and your intrusion is as respectful as possible, then you should disregard the usual respect for privacy.

Has your child ever lied about their activity online? Have they set up a safe, dummy account for you to check, then surreptitiously set up another for them to engage freely with friends? That’s fraudulent. That’s a fast-track to having privileges revoked and strict rules put into place. That’s when you may need to do some poking around. Some benevolent monitoring.

What I’m saying is, that’s when you need to do some spying.

Moreover, this is a rule that should be established with them when they are young enough to listen, so if the day comes that you log in with their passwords to their account, they cannot say “How could you do this?”

Who am I kidding? They will definitely say that. Guaranteed. Probably quite loudly.  But now you have an iron-clad response: we may have to do this to keep them safe.