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Social networking is here to stay, and kids need to be taught how to handle these online tools responsibly. Just as you’d never give a teen the keys to a car without first teaching them how to drive, a child should never be allowed access to social networking sites on the Internet without first being taught the basics of how to share responsibly. These tips will help you teach kids how to stay safe and maintain their dignity when sharing content with others online.

Safe social networking rule #1: Is it parent approved?

Teach teens this rule: If you wouldn’t be comfortable with your parents or teachers seeing it, or if you wouldn’t be willing to stand in the middle of Times Square and shout this information, then it shouldn’t be posted on the Internet. You should be realistic and let them know that you’re well aware that they may do things with their friends that they wouldn’t want to tell you about. That’s understandable. But in these cases, the Internet is not the proper venue to talk or post pictures about such activities either. In the same way that a group can only travel as fast as its littlest or weakest member; what you post publicly for the world to see should be written for the most prudish reader.

Safe social networking rule #2: Never post when angry

One of the most difficult yet most important rules to follow is this: never post anything when you’re upset or angry. Turn off the computer and go for a walk instead. It’s wisdom older than your grandmother, yet there’s good reason for this advice: when emotional centers for anger are activated in your mind, these signals actually suppress activity in the prefrontal cortex and other reasoning centers of the brain. In other words, that’s polite science-speak for saying ANGRY PEOPLE BECOME STUPID. Literally!

When you’re angry, you’re not thinking…not rationally or intelligently at least. So in these moments it’s best to walk away from it all, calm down, and collect your thoughts. The Internet isn’t going anywhere. There’s plenty of time to respond later, and absolutely nothing gained by letting something go for a bit. In fact, not responding immediately to voice your feelings almost always makes you appear more mature and intelligent, and if someone is trying to upset you, chomping at the bit to slander them back only lets them know they’re getting under your skin.

Safe social networking rule #3: Don’t spill family dirt

Once upon a time there was a teen girl who used her Facebook page to rant about how cruel her dad’s boss was. She was upset that the boss refused to grant him time off for a family outing, and so she vented a laundry list of complaints she had overheard from her father. Unfortunately, one of her friends on Facebook happened to be friends with another girl, who just happened to be the daughter of the boss in question. The Facebook friend in question forwarded the rant to her friend, who showed the post to her father, who then promptly fired the other girl’s father. The case would eventually end up in the Supreme Court, which upheld the right of the boss to fire the father over his daughter’s comments.

This is just one example among many of how airing your family’s dirty laundry in a public forum can create serious, life-altering consequences. All kids need to understand this. So share the aforementioned story with your teen, and then sit down to discuss the following:

  • Talk with kids to ensure they understand what qualifies as “dirty laundry” about the family (or anyone else, for that matter).
  • Teach kids that if they absolutely must vent, (and there will be times when they need to), they should do so in a private chat window with their close friends, and never on a blog or publicly accessible web posting such as a Facebook page. Real-time chat conversations are not archived nor broadcast to everyone in the network, so unless the person you’re talking to decides to record or save the conversation and then posts it online themselves, chat is a relatively safe outlet for venting. So long as you trust the friend you’re talking to and ask them not to share it, it’s just like a private telephone conversation. So constantly remind your kids of this simple rule: Facebook to share, chat to vent.

Safe social networking rule #4: Teach children the principle of 6 degrees of separation

Studies conducted by psychologists indicate there is generally no more than 6 degrees of separation between you and anyone else in the world. In other words, take some random little girl in China. Although you do not know her personally, it’s likely that one of your friends, brothers, uncles, friend’s aunt does, hence she is only 6 social layers of separation away from you. Given all the conceivable ways to connect the dots through all the different nodes in your social network (and then all the dots in theirs), there is a path linking you to anyone else in the world that only needs to go through 6 layers of social networks. The layers of separation get less and less when it comes to people within your community, as the teen girl mentioned earlier found out the hard way.

In fact, a recent study determined that when it comes to Facebook, the degrees of separation drops from around 6 to only 4.74. All teens need to be aware of this rule, and recognize that whatever they post can leave their own network and end up one or two degrees of separation away, possibly even more. It may reach an arch enemy at school or a potential future employer. So post accordingly.

Safe social networking rule #5: Get a second opinion

If you’re ever unsure about how something might sound or how it would appear to others, run it by a close friend for a second opinion.

Safe social networking rule #6: Limit your Facebook friends

Be selective about whom you “friend” and who you allow to friend you. Remember that it’s not a contest to accumulate the most friends, and surveys have found that people tend to interpret someone with too many friends as being desperate. Other surveys indicate many people have friends they barely know, or ones who make them uncomfortable. Prune away as many unnecessary contacts as possible, because the larger and looser the network, the greater the chance that what you post could end up in the hands of your enemies.

Safe social networking rule #7: Make use of privacy settings

Teach your teens how to use privacy tools on their Facebook or social networking page. They should get in the habit of double-checking their privacy settings every time they post something. There are many different privacy settings, which you can access by going to “Account” and then clicking on “privacy settings.” We would recommend setting everything to the strictest, most private settings allowable.

Safe social networking rule #8: Be cautious with apps

When you download an app on Facebook, (even seemingly innocuous ones like an app for, it generally allows that company to access all your personal profile information: name, profile picture, gender, user ID, list of friends, postings, etc. Although this may not be dangerous for a major company (unnerving perhaps, but these companies merely want to use this information to sell you better), other less-mainstream apps may have links to malware, so it pays to be cautious.

The obvious thing to do is avoid downloading Facebook apps whenever possible. But for those you can’t live without, keep your information as private as possible. You can check apps by going to Account, then Privacy Settings. Under Apps and Websites, click “Edit your settings.” Next click “Edit settings” next to “Apps you use.” This will allow you to define privacy settings for each app listed and restrict what information you want that app to access, though you usually can’t limit everything.

Next, limit the information available to the apps your friends are using. On the “Apps, Games & Websites” screen, next to “Info accessible through your friends” click the “Edit settings” option and uncheck all the personal information you want shielded from the apps your friends use.

Safe social networking rule #9: Start young

Don’t wait until your kids are teens before you start talking about Internet responsibility. Take advantage of all the teachable moments that arise throughout childhood. When you’re on the computer answering email and children come up to ask what you’re doing, take this opportunity to talk about how you always try to use kind words, how you read what you type twice, and how you never send anything when angry. The younger you start talking with them about these principles, the more it will become second nature when they get older.

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