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The Internet Never Forgets: Parenting the Facebook Generation

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Everybody can think of something really stupid they did as a teenager, like taking your parent's car for a joy ride (without their permission, of course), getting drunk with friends, accepting a dangerous dare, or saying mean (or just dumb) things about somebody. Looking back on these moments, many of us are most grateful that only our close friends, maybe our parents and, if we weren't so lucky, a neighbor or teacher knew about them.

Thanks to Facebook, now the entire world can know. This poses a new challenge for parents, one that needs a new approach.

In a very quiet way (announced only through a blog post), Facebook recently changed their privacy settings. Now 13- to 17-year-olds have the option of making their posts public. Like completely public, so that absolutely anybody can see.

To offset this (and probably to deflect some criticism), they have changed the default privacy settings so that posts are only visible to Friends (people you have allowed to see their profile), as opposed to Friends of Friends. And when teens post something publicly, warning boxes pop up asking them if they are really sure they want to make the post public.

When asked about these changes, Facebook's manager of privacy and public policy, Nicky Jackson Colaco, said "Across the Web, teens can have a very public voice on those services, and it would be a shame if they could not do that on Facebook."

This is a remarkably bad idea.

It's certainly true that youth can post publicly on Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms. But not only is Facebook the most popular social media site for youth, but it's the one where they express themselves in ways they don't elsewhere. Facebook is the social networking site where youth explore and develop their identity -- they test out and "try on" different facets of their personalities on their way to developing a stable sense of self. They are also prone to share more because of the online disinhibition effect: people feel more comfortable saying something online than they would in a comparable offline situation.

At the same time that teens are engaging in a healthy process of identity development, they are not able to censor themselves because of what is going on in their brains. The prefrontal lobes, the part of the brain where judgement, impulse control, and socially appropriate behaviors are controlled, does not fully develop in humans until somewhere between the ages of 20 to 25. Teens are wired to be impulsive and brave -- which makes evolutionary sense, given all the new things they need to learn and do, but may not make sense when it comes to figuring out whether something they post publicly will come back to bite them.

And it absolutely can come back to bite them. For instance, 26 percent of college admissions officers check applicant social media profiles and 35 percent make admissions decisions based on the information they find. Thirty-seven percent of hiring managers use social media to research job candidates and 34 percent said they found information on social media sites that disqualified a candidate.

What can be done?

We can't stop adolescents from using Facebook -- nor do we want them to. Facebook and other social media sites play an important role in their lives, and for the most part, youth use them in healthy ways. It's also unrealistic to think that Facebook will "take it back" and revert to their previous policy. They have a vested interested in all users sharing as much as they can -- it makes it easier for them to learn more about their users, and to make money through advertising.

Clearly, parents need to be talking to their kids about this stuff. But they can't do it in a finger-wagging way -- that's pretty likely to go nowhere.

Instead of telling, ask. Ask your teen about how she uses Facebook. Approach it as a learning experience -- because, after all, it's likely that your teen knows more than you do about it.

Ask them what they think about privacy. You may find that they think differently about privacy than you do. Ask them what they keep private, and how they do that -- and what they are okay with posting publicly. Ask them what they think might come back to harm them later -- and what steps they might take to stop them from posting things that could do just that. It may just be that they have better ideas than we would ever come up with -- and anyway, all of us are more likely to believe in our own solutions than someone else's.

Use mistakes as teachable moments. Talk with your teen about online content they posted that they've later regretted and ask them how to go about avoiding potential fallout from future posts. Talk about mistakes their friends have made, and what they can learn from them. Share with them things you may have regretted posting online as well. Think of these as collaborative conversations where you and your child are both learning about what to do and how to act online.

Support legislation to protect children from the developmentally-appropriate mistakes they might make online. Recently, Senator Edward J. Markey, Representative Joe Barton, Senator Mark Kirk and Representative Bobby Rush introduced a bipartisan "Do Not Track Kids" Act which will amend the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to require that websites have "eraser buttons" to remove publicly available content posted by youth 15 and younger. While this legislation isn't perfect, it's a good first step; we need to step in not only to stop advertisers from preying on our youth, but to allow kids to be kids without doing permanent damage to themselves -- or others.

The Internet has changed so much about our lives. There is so much we do differently now because it exists -- and yet another thing we need to do differently is parenting. Yes, we still need to set limits and be in charge; our children need that from us. But just as the Internet has changed the conversation and brought in more voices, so do we need to work together to solve the challenges it brings for our youth.

We as parents and professionals bring the understanding of the teen brain, and the common sense (and impulse control) it lacks; they as youth bring the understanding of not just the technology, but its possibilities. The industry isn't going to fix this for us, but working together, we can.