What are the best Facebook privacy settings for my child?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Send him a media-related parenting question via cmch@childrens.harvard.edu and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Q: I was on Facebook the other day and noticed that my friend’s teens had Facebook profiles. I could see the entire profile of one (pictures, information, posts, etc.), while I only had limited access to the other (basically just her name and one picture). This made me wonder, what are the privacy options on Facebook? And what privacy settings do you suggest teens use? My teen has a Facebook profile, and I want to make sure her information is only visible to her real-life friends and that her privacy is protected.

~ Perplexed about privacy, Los Altos, CA

A: Dear Perplexed,

As a parent in the digital domain, you are on the right track by looking into what online platforms your child is using and the safety issues surrounding those platforms. Just because a child has turned 13 and is legally able to have her own social media site does not mean that she has the knowledge or skills to function on that site in ways that are safe, healthy, and consistent with good citizenship.

One of the best ways to help ensure your child’s safety while using a site like Facebook is for you to know the site yourself. Become well versed with Facebook’s Safety Center, and create an account for yourself (even if it is only a private account that you will never use) so that you can understand how it works. Get a sense of the questions you have and what issues you might want to discuss with her before (or after) she has an account.

Next, have a conversation with your daughter about privacy issues and, more importantly, about the content that she wants to share online. Talk about why it’s important to only ‘friend’ people she is friends with in the offline world. Help her understand that everything she posts online is essentially public, since any information meant for a ‘friend’ only can quickly go viral if that friend decides to share that information with a third party. You may want to invoke the ‘grandmother rule’ and remind her not to post anything online that she wouldn’t want her grandmother to see—even to people who are her offline friends.

Whether your child has an account already or not, talk with her about privacy settings. Facebook has a number of settings that you and she can customize together to control who sees her profile, posts, photos, and other actions on the site. If she doesn’t have an account yet, help her through the process of setting it up.

Once she’s on the site, continue to parent online just as you do offline. For example, you can decide that the privilege of establishing a social media account comes with the contingency that you have access to the account, just as the privilege of having a driving permit means a child can only drive with a licensed adult. Remember to take a look at her profile every now and again to make sure those settings are being maintained. Most importantly, make yourself available to your child should she need any help or have any questions or concerns. Remember, privacy settings are important, but even the best setting can be hacked. The best tool you have is to educate and empower your child to understand the implications of and take responsibility for what she says and does, both offline and online.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®