Spot the flaw – teaching children to use social media safely

The biggest problem, of course, with teaching our children and young people how to safely navigate and use social media such as Facebook and Twitter, is that most people don’t KNOW how to safely navigate and use social media. And that’s a problem. The reality, alluded to in Kevin’s earlier post, is that an awful lot of adults are terrified of Facebook, or else utterly oblivious to it. And if you have no skills to keep yourself safe on-line, then you cannot hope to teach those skills to the eleven and twelve year olds in your care.

So, what are the rules? Well, here are some of mine:

Know who your friends are

I have a basic rule for Facebook, which I know not everyone shares – to be my friend, I have to have met you, at least once. It is perfectly possible to safely use Facebook in a different way, but it is clearly designed with the assumption that my Facebook friends are, in fact, my actual friends.

FacebookNow, I probably wouldn’t describe all my Facebook friends as actual friends in any other sense. Lots of them are people from my past, even from primary school, with whom I have no particular relationship, and whom I haven’t seen in person for 20 or more years. I use Facebook to keep a vague link with people I would otherwise have lost touch with, because I’m casually interested in how they turned out. However, that “long-list” of friends doesn’t see most of what I post. My day-to-day statuses, the photos of my children, and other personal information is limited to a short-list of friends, which I call, (imaginatively) “Real Friends”. And what most people don’t realise, or can’t be bothered with (I am, as Kevin regularly says, a closet librarian who likes this sort of thing), is that you can group and sub-group your friends to almost infinite levels of granularity. I have about a dozen lists in my Friends section, including Family, Church, Home-Ed Friends, High School, Primary School, University CU, University Staff, etc, etc, etc. However, the default setting on my account is that only the group Real Friends can see my status and other postings. I can change that to an alternative group, or a collection of groups/individuals on a post-by-post basis, if I like, but for the unthinking day-to-day stuff, that’s my default setting.

It’s not widely understood that Facebook gives you these options. It is true that Facebook doesn’t have a history of taking user privacy very seriously, but it’s also true that there are a great many more hoaxes and fabrications out there, about Facebook security, than real problems. Periodically, they try to change something, if it’s a bad idea the media get a hold, and Facebook back down. It’s not a complete privacy disaster area, but you DO need to take the trouble to learn how to use the tools that are there.

Protect the vulnerable

When you sign up to Facebook, it makes you promise faithfully that you are over the age of 13. I didn’t have a problem with this, because I’ve been over 13 for many years. However, I do know people who have consciously created Facebook accounts for children much younger than this, for various reasons – practical ones, so that the child can play game that they previously only played on a parent’s account; and more ideological ones, to do with the belief that if they introduce them early, they can be part of teaching them how to use it, and keep themselves safe.

As a result, I have one under-13 amongst my friends, and he gets his own set of security settings. He can see nothing at all. I’m not in the habit of posting porn or anything, but since most of my friends are adults, I don’t want to inadvertantly post something, forgetting he would see it too. I also don’t want any of my friends, who could post things onto my wall if they wished, to put something inappropriate where my young friend might come across it – either intentionally, or because of a virus they have contracted. When I accepted the friend request of a child, I took responsibility for protecting him from what he might see from my account.

If you’re friends with your mother, and you don’t want her to see what you might get up to, put her in her own group. You can use lists to grant greater access to a specific group, but you can also use them to limit access to particular people. If I were in the habit of befriending people I’d never met, I would probably add those people to a similar group, barring them from access to various sorts of personal information.

Understand how Twitter is different

Twitter, I treat entirely differently. In precisely opposite terms to Facebook, Twitter has been designed so that anything I post can, potentially, be seen by anyone at all. In the world. Anywhere. Again, there are ways of changing the defaults – you can tie your account down so that you get to vet your followers, and only those people can read your tweets. Most people don’t, though, and that is one of the strengths of Twitter; it can give you conversation and discussion with a wide range of interested people, whom you may not otherwise come across.

TwitterThat means, of course, that you need to be much more careful about personal information. If you decide to tweet where and when you plan to be with your children, today, you need to be aware than any old nutter could see that information – not just the people who follow you, even. The great likelihood is that they won’t, of course, but they could, and you need to take responsibility for how much you give away about yourself to the world. It may FEEL like you’re having a private conversation with an individual, but unless you’re using Direct Messages, you’re probably not.

Know your audience

Related to that, is a general need on ALL social media, including blogs and forums and anywhere else that you might post, to know what you’re saying, and to whom. We’ve be scalded by this one a few times, ourselves – usually in the context of passing comment on a person or group, either in the public domain, or whom we never imagined would read it, and then having to grovel humbly for offending them. It’s not good. It leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, and makes me hate myself a bit. So, be aware of how global your audience is, but also be aware of whom you have put in your groups, and whether you really want them to read what you’ve written.


We’ve blogged for much longer than we’ve been parents, and we’re not particularly careful about disguising our identities when we do it. If I had to point to a weakness in our online presence, that would probably be it. When Daisy was born, she was a tiny baby (obviously), and there didn’t seem to be any great risks associated with posting photos of a child who was never out of my sight anyway. By the time she turned two, I was starting to feel more jumpy about her web exposure, and at that point, we started password protecting photos of her, and later of her brother. In keeping with that philosophy, I post photos of them on Facebook, within my carefully-tied-down security system there, and I don’t post them on Twitter, because it’s so much more open.

I know other people whose blogs I follow, who DO post photos of their children, but who never use their real names. It’s an alternate approach, I suppose – if some undesirable decided to stalk the child, they would have to stumble across them, they couldn’t search for them by name. It’s probably not ideal to pour all your personal details out to everyone, and particularly those of your children, for whom you are responsible.

Think very carefully about how much information you are prepared to give to strangers, either formally, or (perhaps more riskily) in conversation. If you decide real names are out, then be consistent – there’s no point using pseudonyms on your blog, if you refer to yourself by name on Twitter, or link to a Facebook account that’s not tied down.

Take it slow

Internet relationships are very odd things. They can become very personal and in-depth, very quickly, and you can find yourself feeling that you know a person inside out, even though you’ve never met them, and only tweeted with them over a few weeks.

Time is the most effective safeguard against being duped by an online friend who isn’t what they claim. The longer you converse with them, the more you find out about them, and the clearer it becomes if the information doesn’t add up. I have an online friend whom I plan to meet for the first time in a few weeks. I don’t know her, but over a period of 7 or 8 months, I have learned a lot about her personality, I know the names of her children, I think I even know her address, if I concentrate. It’s been a gradual process, and at every stage, the new information has tallied with the information which came before, the Twitter persona fitted in with the blog posts, and I am confident that the person in question is authentically who she says she is. However, neither am I meeting her for the first time alone.


The final golden rule of the internet, for me, is don’t accept being treated badly. Block and move on. Even with an open Twitter account, you can block other users from viewing your stream, and from contacting you. You can defriend people on Facebook, and you can moderate blog comments, so that they don’t automatically appear on your site. There is no reason to let people mistreat you online, and the sooner you cut off their access to you, the easier it will be to do.

So, those are my rules. What are yours?

5 thoughts on “Spot the flaw – teaching children to use social media safely

  1. my cyber bullying rule that I share as often as I can at school is … “don’t delete the evidence” – however much you feel like getting rid of it keep the evidence – it’s amazing reading the print outs to the bullys parents, or handing it over to our community police officer… Bullies always claim that they never said it and the other person is making it up …. (too often their parents agree unthinkingly) but cyber bullying is unique in the trail of evidence it leaves behind…

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Didn’t know about that list thing either. Ooh RJ thou art a font of wiwledge and knosdom! I hadn’t really given my social media security much thought apart from protecting my tweets – I will now tho!

  3. I know I find Facebook difficult at times and I am an adult. My son finds it very hard as unkind stuff from school (not necessarily bullying) can carry on on FB or by text. I haven’t opened him up to Twitter yet. As you say, it is quite different!

    I must say that it is easy enough to unfriend someone that you don’t know well but there are people in everyone’s lives that are difficult to block (like family or people who you will bump into regularly). Certainly children’s school friends can be difficult to exclude without it spilling into day to day life.
    That said my husband makes his living from social media and he has seen it transform businesses. He feels that the days of protecting the little bit of knowledge that you have are over. Now it is about collaboration and social networks are a wonderful way to do that. I feel stuck between trying to equip my children for life and trying to protect them. I say no adults other than family (and that does help my son say no to some people) and I won’t have children on my FB (things are quickly said and people forget who is in the room).

    I do think it is important for parents to know what is going on on their children’s FB account and to step in when necessary. Kids need to know that adults will step in and help them if they need it and also that any bullying is being taken seriously.

Comments are closed.