Can Facebook's Safety Center Help Parents Protect Kids Online?

Amid growing concern about online safety for minors, including the threats of bullying and various other kinds of harassment, on April 13 Facebook unveiled its new "Safety Center" -- an online resource center for parents consisting of guidelines, advice, a Q&A section, and links to organizations with more information about keeping teens safe online.

If I had to summarize my reaction -- as a non-parent -- to the Safety Center in one word, it would be "exhausting." As in, dear God, having kids must be exhausting. The litany of questions in the Q&A section is enough to make you consider monasticism: "How should I help my child use this site wisely? What if my child sees inappropriate content or offensive material on the site? What happens when I report someone? How can my teen report abuse? What should I do if my teen is being cyberbullied? What if my teen's current or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend is controlling or monitoring what they do through Facebook? What should my teen do if someone has posted an objectionable photo on Facebook? Can I use a 'media agreement' to build trust with my teen? Can I 'friend' my teen?"

My favorite question, located in a section contributed by Facebook's safety partner CommonSense Media: "How can I understand my teen's connected world?" I can almost see the frazzled middle-aged mother behind this plaintive call for help. CommonSense sensibly advises: "Keep an open mind. We don't see the world the way our kids do. We don't help our kids when we judge their lives through the lens of a non-digital world. It's important for us to understand that our kids will spend their lives in a connected world where everyone participates in communication and creation."

On reflection, parents today face an unprecedented challenge in the form of communications technology which is evolving far beyond their capacity to keep up -- meaning, even being able to understand what is happening, let along police it. There has really never been anything like this before: for most of its history the telephone was a communal tool in the home whose use was easy enough to monitor. More importantly, ill-advised over-sharing on the phone didn't have the enduring, and-here's-the-photos-to-prove-it quality of an online misstep.

This puts parents in a quandary, and CommonSense's advice is helpful here -- but only to a degree: "Parents can't afford to be technophobic. Our kids adopt technologies faster than we do. This fact upsets the parent/child relationship. So get in the game. Have your kids show you how to do something if you don't know." Of course, there's an obvious problem with making parents' ability to police their children dependent on the children explaining what they need to police: this might work in some families, but what about situations where the parent-child relationship is, shall we say, somewhat adversarial? This is like police asking bank robbers to please provide their getaway route and vehicle description, directions to hideout, personal identifying information, etc.

Meanwhile I can imagine some of Facebook's other provisos probably rub parents the wrong way. For example, while a parent might assume they have the right to monitor and delete their child's Facebook page if the child is between the ages of 13-17 (and in fact I kind of assumed that they did) that's not the case: "We appreciate your concern for your child's use of our website, but unfortunately we cannot give you access to the account or take any action on the account at your request." Basically, Facebook says you're on your own here: "We encourage parents to exercise any discretion they can on their own computers and in overseeing their kids' internet use."

What struck me as most interesting about the Facebook Safety Center is that, with all its advice and guidelines, the site can't really help parents address what must be one of their biggest concerns: online predators who use the site to make contact with potential victims. The best parents can do is remind teens that "People aren't necessarily who they say they are in cyberspace," and institute rules that "They should never send pictures to strangers" and "If they meet someone, it better be in a public place, with a friend."

This is good advice, and I'm not criticizing Facebook or saying they're not doing enough. But the fact is, the limited nature of these measures is bound to leave parents with a certain amount of anxiety that simply can't be remedied -- reflecting the chaotic freedom of the Internet and the insecurity that comes with life in an open society. And oh yes, the exhaustion that comes from having teenage children.

2 comments about "Can Facebook's Safety Center Help Parents Protect Kids Online?".
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  1. Kathryn Gorges from Kathryn Gorges Courses, April 22, 2010 at 4:49 p.m.

    Instilling the values and habits of community have always been important and perhaps all these fears show how little many parents have been paying attention to this. Or it reflects a lack of trust in the lessons a parent has taught over the years. Community is community -- online or not.

    Either way, fear is not a helpful reaction or motivation. Planning, care, understanding, and contextualizing are what is called for -- as are most lessons we teach our kids about how to get along successfully in the world on their own.

    Parenting is, after all, the task of preparing your child for life in all it's glory, not protecting them from it until it's too late (although, some protection in early childhood is natural and beneficial).

  2. Walter Sabo from HitViews, April 23, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.

    I thought it was HYSTERICAL when I read that the COO of Facebook was horrified at the censorship in China...but thrillingly embraces the censorship of the US. No nudes---god forbid.

    I have a 4 and 7 year old. What they see and read is their Mother and Father's responsibility. Period. That's my job. I don't need a bunch of Northern California code writers doing my job. It's not an "unprecedented challenge."

    There have always been things to protect kids from---horse mud in the street, segregation, bullies, lousy public schools, lousy teachers, evil relatives, Walmart. Always something. That's a parent's job, not Facebooks'.

    A "safety center" for a goof-ball website? Please.

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