What it is: Founded in 2004 as a tool for Harvard students, Facebook is now the largest social network in the world, with 1.49 billion users as of the end of June 2015, according to the company.
Why it’s popular for teens and tweens: Kids are often aware of Facebook long before they get their own account. After all, they’ve grown up watching us chronicle their childhoods online. Because many parents are comfortable with Facebook, it’s often the first social media account they allow their children to have (of the kids who use only one social network, two-thirds of them are on Facebook). It’s easily accessible from any Wi-Fi enabled computer or device.
The media often claims Facebook is passé among the younger generation, but the numbers don’t back that up. Facebook may no longer be the only social network tweens are on, but it’s still the most popular. As with any network, the appeal grows the more people join, so as tweens sign up, their friends lobby for accounts too.
Why it’s important: Facebook is the “gateway drug” of the social media morass. It’s often a tween’s first real social media exposure, and its relative safety makes it an excellent training ground for developing smart online practices that parents can hope they carry with them to other apps and networks.
How many kids are using it: A recent Pew Research Center survey reported that 71 percent of kids ages 13 to 17 use Facebook. (Because the site requires kids to be at least 13 to register (or lie about their age) there’s no data on how many children under 13 are on Facebook.
How kids are using it: Based on my experience with the tweens and teens I am friends with on Facebook and others I spoke with, they use it pretty much the same way their parents do: to post photos and memes, keep in touch with friends, and watch cat videos.
How parents can monitor it: The best option is to have your own Facebook account and ask your child to friend you on the site. As I note below, this isn’t 100 percent foolproof. A tween determined to hide Facebook activity from their parents can do so without much effort, but it’s a decent start.
Before you make your Facebook friendship official, talk with your child and set some ground rules about how you’ll interact online. For example, wishing her a happy birthday on her wall may be fine, but she’ll probably prefer that you don’t comment on every (or any) conversation she has with friends. If you have concerns about something she’s posted, take it up with her offline, not on Facebook.
Warning: You may find your tween’s posts highly annoying (and vice versa). Remember, you can always opt to “unfollow” her posts, which means they won’t show up on your timeline, but you’ll still be able to view them by going to her profile page.
Why parents can relax, a little bit: Compared with apps like Snapchat and Yik Yak, Facebook offers fewer temptations for tweens and is easier for parents to monitor. Parents are much more likely to have their own Facebook accounts and understand how it works than with other popular tween social media apps. That makes it easier to offer advice and guidance as tweens start using Facebook.
Facebook also offers a number of features that help limit what kids see. For example, they can control whom they add as friends (you may want to require that they actually know their Facebook friends), hide posts from frenemies, and use privacy settings to determine who sees their posts. Going through the pages of privacy settings together is tedious but essential to make sure you both understand how they work and have them set up correctly. It also offers a perfect opening to talk about what is appropriate to share in posts and photos and with whom.
Why parents should worry: A tween doesn’t have to be very savvy to figure out how to restrict the audience for their posts, so parents who are Facebook friends with their kids can’t assume that they are seeing everything. Direct messages and private groups are other ways for kids to have conversations without parents being aware.
There’s no option to monitor these except to view your child’s account directly. Any private groups will be listed on the right-hand side of the screen and messages can be viewed by clicking on the chat bubble icon in the blue bar at the top of the page, though these are easily deleted. Of course, a really determined kid can figure out how to set up a second, secret profile that they don’t share with parents. As with everything online, the only real safeguard is to talk openly and honestly with your tween about your expectations and keep the lines of communication open.
Other potential issues surrounding tweens on Facebook are likely ones their Facebook-using parents have faced as well: mean and/or bullying comments, pictures from parties or events to which they were not invited, getting caught up in how many likes a post gets (or doesn’t get), and measuring self-worth based on the number of Facebook friends they have. Use your own experiences as conversation starters to help your tween learn how to cope with social media’s darker side.