The key element that defines social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ is the creation and sharing of personalized content in a dedicated online space. A neutral tool that can be used for good or ill like any other piece of technology, the simple fact that kids have become registered members of social networks shouldn't raise concerns. (Unless they've proven to be untrustworthy when setting personal or private boundaries in the past.) More important to consider are how children use these services, the interactions they are having on these sites, the types of information being shared and how and to whom their data is visible.
That said, once tots are connected, these platforms can connect them to people from all locations and cultural backgrounds. But for better or worse, social networks can also serve as an amplifier for information shared or consumed. While millions can potentially see your activities, it's important to note that interactions needn't be negative: Making the most of social networks is all about the image and tone you choose to adopt, what you choose to share with the world and how you comport yourself while doing so.
Here's a quick look at the most popular social networks. For more, see bestselling high-tech parenting series The Modern Parent's Guide, free to download online:
- Facebook is today's most well-known social network amongst all age groups. Users must both agree to become "friends" in order to view each others' updates, photos, links and more, with the service accessible from myriad devices, operating systems and platforms.
- Twitter is a real-time information sharing network in which users exchange short text messages called "Tweets" containing 140 characters or less. Anyone can access these updates through public searches, and users can subscribe to follow others' public updates.
- Google+ connects you with other users, as does Facebook, but it also provides the option to group contacts by social circles, letting you filter the updates that friends can receive.
- Pinterest is a photo sharing site that easily lets users share and sort photos and brief captions for others to enjoy. It's exploding in popularity thanks to its highly visual nature and user-friendly interface.
- Tumblr is a "short-form" blog that allows for quick updates and photo sharing, and allows users to easily follow each other or discover other content that may be of interest.
Safety tips with regard to kids and social networks include:
• If you're not already using any social networking service that kids are, register immediately. You should have a thorough understanding of how each works -- knowledge that may also provide some common ground for discussions with kids.
• Reassure kids that they don't need to be afraid to connect with your profile -- and honor your word by treating them with respect and dignity and not posting embarrassing or annoying public messages to their profiles.
• Teach kids that everything seen on social networks is potentially publicly visible and can live online forever: Poor choices can come back to haunt them. If it's not something they'd say or share with their grandmother, it's not something appropriate to post online.
• Respect the golden rule -- when interacting online, treat others with the same degree of care and dignity you'd ask for yourself. If you don't have something nice to say, don't say it.
• Don't post pictures or video of others' without their express permission. Do not tag others in posts that may present an embarrassing, negative or unprofessional image.
• Configure privacy settings so that status updates, photos, videos and more are visible only to those you choose. Don't assume they'll be automatically set to appropriate levels.
• Encourage children to come forward with questions or concerns should they encounter situations or content online that makes them suspicious or uncomfortable.
• Foster a household environment where trust and open dialogue are paramount: Everyone should feel comfortable to come forward with and discuss their concerns.
• Respect children's boundaries: Monitor activity, but don't intrude on their social network experience by chumming around with their friends, publicly posting on their Timeline or otherwise inserting yourself into social situations you wouldn't in real life.