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Originally published Friday, February 24, 2012 at 5:13 PM

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Parents should help teens take a critical look at Facebook

Parents should talk to their children about Facebook postings, and how much of "real life" it really is. On Facebook, teens can often act with less civility because it is easier to insult people when they are physically distant.

Special to The Seattle Times

Five things parents can do

• Make sure privacy controls are set up correctly; recheck periodically.

• Explain that many parents can see their kids' wall, so not much is private.

• Explain that once an image is posted, it is hard to erase.

• Teach them to respect others' feelings online.

• Ask a cousin, aunt or other mentor figure to "friend" them and advise them if they see something amiss.

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In the old days (five years ago), the question "What are your high-schooler's hobbies?" might be answered with, "He plays guitar" or "She writes poetry." Now it's often, "My teen does homework and Facebook."

Outgoing or shy, posting all their thoughts or just logging in to read everyone else's, teens are finding Facebook to be a favorite pastime and a great way to keep up with summer-camp friends, ask classmates about homework assignments, or share a funny video.

"For most teens, these are exciting and rewarding spaces," said Amanda Lenhart, lead author of a Pew Research Center report that studied teen social-media experiences. "But the majority have also seen a darker side."

Parents, though, can help their children navigate the world of Facebook.

Teens want to be part of a social tribe, said Laura Kastner, a psychologist and co-author of books on teen brain development and behavior, so they are attracted to Facebook and the acquisition of "friends" there. But the Facebook tribe is made up of manufactured personas, she said, rather than a social group built around common activities and shared interests.

Kastner said teenagers online are more prone to impulsiveness and showing off. "It's all about 'Look at my friends! Look at my stuff!' " she said. And while teens can create an online image that makes them look good, they can make others feel excluded or inferior.

Parents should talk to their children about Facebook postings, and how much of "real life" it really is, Kastner said. On Facebook, teens often act with less civility because it is easier to insult people when they are physically distant, she said.

And while parents might coach a child on how to answer a phone politely, there is less instruction about online etiquette, said Fred Lane, an attorney and author of "CyberTraps for the Young," because much of it goes on outside the parents' purview.

Parents need to teach kids that just as in real life, insulting people, cursing, or other negative behaviors online are not only hurtful, but can affect how people regard them, he said. There are even more witnesses to those actions on Facebook.

And it's not just friends who see their online behavior. "A significant number of parents have their child's Facebook, Skype and email passwords and check in on their accounts, so they see the actions of their teenager and their classmates," Lane said.

Colleges and prospective summer-job employers may also do some checking.

Parents can also teach teens to be aware that their postings are seen widely, so something as innocent as a request for a ride to a party or posting pictures afterward can make the uninvited feel left out.

A new feature on Facebook lets users customize who sees each post when the user writes it. "This is great for a teen who is posting a photo of herself in a bathing suit, or information about a social event," said Vanessa Van Petten, author of "Do I Get my Allowance Before or After I'm Grounded?"

The Internet and social media also have changed the nature of bullying, according to Lane. "When we had a bad day growing up, we might come home and play cards with dad or walk the dog and feel better," he said. "Now the bullying follows kids home because it's there when they open their computer or look at their phone."

Lane tells parents to keep phones and computers out of their teen's bedrooms, especially if they are being bullied. "Being alone in the dark at night with the nasty messages on your computer can really magnify a teen's depression," he said.

Teens are much more comfortable sharing their personal information online and have a different view of privacy, Lane said. Though they seem savvy, many teens are sharing more information than they realize.

Van Petten, who has the website, suggests parents check in on their teens' privacy setting periodically. She also advises parents to ask an aunt, cousin, mentor or other adult to "friend" their teen and keep an eye on them online. Once the info is out there it can be hard to erase, said Lane. Parents need to help kids understand their digital footprint can be permanent. Van Petten suggests parents set up Google Alerts or other service to tell them when their child's name has been posted publicly.

Family communication is also key. Van Petten suggests sitting down with teens once a month and asking them to share their favorite videos or funny wall posts, new websites or games.

"From there, parents can naturally weave in their thoughts about online behaviors and values," she said.

One piece of good news is that much of the angst and bad behavior online seems to lessen in adulthood. In Pew's study of adult users, instances of mean behavior were lower than those reported in the teen study; instances of positive behaviors were higher.

Teens are finding other ways of expressing themselves online. Audrey Stocker, an eighth-grader in Seattle, used to spend more time on Facebook, but has recently moved to Pinterest, a new website that lets users create online collages of photos, videos, quotes, etc. around favorite topics.

"It's more fun to create something yourself and share it," she said, "than read what other people are doing all day."

Julie Weed is a freelance writer in Seattle.

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