When Online Friends Aren’t Friendly

by Lois Rubin Gross

Several weeks ago, I received a troubling message on my Facebook page. It was a “friend” request from an eleven-year-old cousin of ours. Several months before, this child had refused to speak to me at Thanksgiving dinner because she didn’t know me well enough. Now, she wants to have access to my status updates and for me to see her activities (which mostly consists of taking tests to see who her online stalkers are).

I questioned her mother (who is a librarian and really ought to know better), who sheepishly admitted to caving to her young daughter’s request for an account because “all her friends have one and all she’s doing is trying to see how many ‘friends’ she can add.”

This is troubling on so many levels. Not to criticize her mother’s parenting, but Facebook rules say children under thirteen should not have accounts (just as the now ancient MySpace used to say children under fourteen were banned, and no one paid attention to that rule, either). There is also the issue that I am a virtual stranger to this youngster, as her behavior at Thanksgiving reflected, and she should not be sending messages to people she really doesn’t know. One thing that I’ve discovered is that this child is an accomplished gymnast. She frequently posts pictures of herself and her teammates in body-hugging gymnastic wear. The photos are tagged and her gymnastic school is named. It would be very easy for a stalker to find any of these children and convince them that they were acquaintances of parents.

Your children are probably younger than this Facebook fan, but I’ll bet that you have posted pictures of your child or your child’s friends on Facebook. (Certainly your parents have posted pictures of their grandchildren. I know because I get those posts every day on my page.) The children are usually named and often their location is given and, in all likelihood, you have posted these pictures without permission of other children’s parents who are included in the photos. When you come to a library program where pictures are being taken, the staff asks you to sign a photo release before they post or share images. Without similar documentation, you really do not have permission to post a child’s photo on your website.

I’m a realist. I know that social media is all about sharing and bragging and letting faraway friends and relatives know how your child is growing up. While we used to have to wait till the annual Christmas letter to hear how everyone’s children got Student of the Month or School Citizen of the Year, it now comes to our computer, iPad, or iPhone hourly and sometimes by the minute.

Do be discreet about sharing personal information on the computer, and ask your extended family to respect your privacy by not posting photos and details such as, “Our children are coming to Hawaii with us, next week,” therefore alerting every burglar in a ten mile radius that your house is unguarded. It’s important to take advantage of social network privacy options although the new Facebook choices are confusing especially with Timeline. Make sure that your page and definitely your child’s page are accessible only to friends. If your child does have a FB page, insist that they customize it so that only pre-approved people can reach their information. Kids “collect” friends and may end up with “friends of friends” who you do not know. Monitor your child’s friends’ list or shut down the account.

So far as “tagging” children in photos, you now have the option to delete tags, even those put on by other people. Make sure that your child is not identified in photos and, here’s the hardest job of all, make sure that all of your loving relatives (including grandparents) respect your wishes to keep your child’s identity private

According to www.commonsensemedia.org, children ages 2 to 11 make up nearly 10% of the active online universe (Nielsen, 2010). Children don’t thoroughly understand that computers are not just game stations, but actual communications devices that let people into their lives. The same source quotes a figure that 18% of 8 to 10 year olds spend some time on social networking sites, daily. (Kaiser Foundation, 2010). While your children may not be on Facebook, they may be part of sites like Club Penguin, Neopets, or Dizzywoods, all of which enable your child to interact with other children (or predatory adults masquerading as children) in ways that compromise their privacy.

Social media is not going away anytime soon nor, I will be the first to admit, would I want it to. I love finding friends I haven’t seen since high school days, staying in touch with people from other places where I’ve lived, and sharing political rants with like-minded friends. However, when it comes to children, other rules need to be established. Keep these guidelines in mind when your child sits down at the computer:

    1. Limit time on the computer – it’s so easy to become addicted to computer games. As we go into summer, children should be outside playing, at the library, or involved in activities to stretch their minds. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your children are visiting educational sites when you’re not around. As a librarian, I can tell you with conviction that, unless kids have a homework assignment, they think computers are an unlimited games arcade and will use them, accordingly.
    2. Be in the room when your child is on the computer – do not use the computer as a babysitter. If your child is online, you be there, too. As with any media, the best filter is a parent looking over a child’s shoulder.
    3. Limit the number of “licensed toy” sites your child visits – Barbie sites are selling Barbie dolls, Club Penguin is selling Disney toys. Don’t believe for a second that these are anything but glorified marketing tools.
    4. Find sites that are appropriate for your child’s age – most social sites are aimed at children age 7 or older. There are sites that are structured for preschooler’s learning and you should do some research to find these sites for your younger child.
    5. Make sure your child understands the need for privacy – just as there is “stranger danger” on the street, there are unwanted predators in the internet. You train your child from an early age to be wary of casual contact with unknown people on the street. Now educate them about the dangers of people striking up conversations on social network sites.
    6. Never ever, ever, ever give clues to the location or identity of your child – whether we like it or not, it’s a dangerous world out there. Don’t let it encroach via cyberspace on your precious child’s safety.

Visit some of the following sites, yourself, to get more on-line safety tips and appropriate game sites for all young children:


http://www.preschoolplaybook.com/2010/02/10-learning-sites-for -preschoolers.html



And, listen to author James Steyer’s NPR interview. He discusses his new book Talking Back to Facebook: A Common Sense Guide To Raising Kids in the Digital Age. Steyer explores some of the effects of digital media on kids and outlines strategies for making sure kids don’t fall into what he calls RAP — relationship issues, attention/addiction problems and privacy pitfalls — while navigating the digital world.

Lois Rubin Gross has an MS in Library Sciences from Drexel University. She is currently Senior Children’s Librarian at the Hoboken (NJ) Public Library. She has also worked as a librarian for children with special needs. She is a book reviewer for Children’s Literature and a blogger for After Fifty Living and Wise Women Now. Join her Facebook book community Lois Storylady.

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