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How Concerned Should Parents Be About Facebook?

With now more than two billion users worldwide, Facebook is the undisputed king of social media, with almost as many users as the next two platforms combined. Out of the top 10 social media apps, Messenger and Instagram are owned by Facebook, which contributes to their growing user rate.

All apps pose potential risks to their users, but especially to children, as the ability to use an app technically does not guarantee the wisdom to use it wisely! Tweens and teens often fail to see the danger before it is too late, putting them at a greater risk for problems. This article will review Facebook using our unique, eight-point criteria review; analyzing the risks for using Facebook.

Catfishing (9 out of 10)

According to the FBI, there are as many as 750,000 child predators online at any given moment. Naturally, those that are targeting kids do not come out directly and admit their true intentions. In order to hide their true goal, they pretend to be someone else, a practice called “catfishing”.

Catfishing is one of the most dangerous aspects of social media. Since the other person is clearly hiding their identity, who knows what their intentions might be? In could be harmless fun, but it also could be for more sinister reasons. The most sickening case I heard about involving catfishing involved a father from Upstate New York, who tricked his own daughter into sending him nude photos of herself. He didn’t do it to teach her a lesson, but because he enjoyed it, leading to even worse actions taking place offline.

It is all too easy for anyone to steal an image and upload it as their own. In the two videos shown here, both boys and girls are lured to meet up with people they have never met after only knowing them online for a day (or less)! It is important to note that in the second (boys) video, the first of the three boys shown here goes to meet Amanda, who he “met” on Facebook. The other two do not mention how they met, but it is likely done the same way.

Some look for a quick meeting, like those shown in the videos below. In each case, young boys were lured away from their homes to meet up with what they thought were young, attractive girls about their own age.

Once these children go to meet people they have just “met” online, it is all too easy for them to be attacked or even kidnapped. Many of the kids went to private homes or even invited these strangers to their own homes! All because they believed they knew them.

Whenever possible, verify who you are communicating with before you send any kind of personal information or images to them. When accepting requests from people that you know in real life, verify their request offline before you accept it. If it is someone that you don’t know, look for signs which might indicate that they are not genuine.

Cyberbullying (8 out of 10)

Almost every social media platform out there has been used for cyberbullying, including Facebook. Even LinkedIn has been known to experience it. The ability of any app, blog or website to prevent cyberbullying is only as good as the people using it. That said, Facebook is home to a lot of cyberbullying just because of its sheer popularity. No site itself can adequately police itself against cyberbullying and Facebook is no exception. One of the best ways to prevent cyberbullying as well as an invasion of privacy is to properly set your privacy settings so that strangers or “non-friends” can’t see what you post. At the same time, having a talk with your “friends” about what is okay to share from your account and tagging you in their own posts is also a good idea.

Language (9 out of 10)

Foul language is commonplace today. It’s a matter of fact and quite frankly, I’m not sure how we can prevent it from happening. But we can help block our younger children from seeing at least some of it. Unfortunately, Facebook does not have any kind of filter on it that prevents profanity from being posted on someone’s timeline or in a group that they may be a member of on the site.

It does have a profanity filter for pages. While many people I speak to frequently call their own personal account their “page”, it is not the same thing as a personal account, which people should refer to as their news feed or timeline, depending on if it’s inbound or outgoing.

Naturally, people have the ability to delete specific comments that other people make on their own timeline and can hide/block postings with inappropriate language on it if they wish. By that time, the damage may have been done, especially to younger kids.

For this reason, I recommend that all personal accounts have their privacy settings so that only those people that they have accepted as friends have the ability to post to their timeline and tag them in posts. That goes in tandem with making sure that everyone is selective with who they allow into their inner circle. Below, in the Privacy section, I placed a video that shows you how to make this happen.

Nudity (6 out of 10)

Facebook is overwhelmed by the amount of content that is posted onto it and has admitted that it cannot effectively monitor it. In May of this year, they announced that the company was hiring an additional 3,000 content moderators, who look out for inappropriate content, including nudity, hate speech and more.

According to its Community Standards, “We restrict the display of nudity and sexual activity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content - particularly because of their cultural background or age.”

While that sounds good, the reality is pretty far from the desired outcome. In practice, full nudity or anything showing genitalia is typically forbidden, but there are many ways around it, including strategically placed stars to hide certain anatomical parts.

More concerning is what happens in secret groups. These groups do not show up in searches and only become known to someone who gets invited by an existing member. Friends of members can’t see that they are members of such groups, so parents may not know that their children are in such a group unless they sign onto Facebook using their child’s account.

What goes on in these groups could be compared to the wildest frat party from Animal House, but without worry that Dean Wormer would find out about it. “Closed” groups are slightly better in that the groups do show up in searches and others can see if someone is a member of a closed group, assuming that their privacy settings allow for it.

Privacy (6 out of 10)

Social media is a time when quality is far more important that quantity. To quote George Washington, “Be courteous to all, but intimate with few; and let those be well-tried before you give them your confidence.”

Most people would not leave their home unlocked, but by not maintaining your Facebook privacy settings properly, you are inviting complete strangers into your online life. The image below is a random profile from someone I came across in a Facebook group. It was the third profile I looked at – as the first two had their privacy settings so that strangers could not see them.

I do not know this person. However, based on his profile and his wall (outbound posts), I know quite a bit about him. I know where he lives, who his family is, including his teenage daughter), where he went on vacation and a whole lot more!

Facebook has better than average privacy settings if people use them, but many people do not use them properly, if at all. The video below shows how Facebook users can help prevent others from accessing their personal information.

Bear in mind that privacy settings are only a part of the solution. As I explain in the video, how your friends share your content and tag you in their own posts has a lot to do with who can see your postings/information. For this reason, everyone should speak to their friends about what is acceptable to share from you. At the very least, set your Timeline and Tagging Settings so that other people need your approval to tag you in a posting.

My favorite story here was one I saw a few years ago, when a woman posted a racy picture of herself on Facebook and thought that she had set it so that only her husband would be able to see the picture. She was wrong and every one of his Facebook friends saw the picture. He was a high school teacher and it wasn’t long before the image had been downloaded and shared throughout the school, to both co-workers and students. They learned the #OnlineMeetsOffline lesson the hard way!

Tips to maximize privacy on Facebook:

  1. Proper use of Facebook’s Privacy Settings (see above video).

  2. Avoid using pictures which include your face in your profile and cover photos (see image below)

  3. Be very selective regarding friend requests.

  4. Consider using a different name (maiden name, middle name, etc.)

  5. Talk to your friends about what is okay to share from your account.

Sexting (8 out of 10)

Sexting on Facebook is probably more common on Facebook’s Messenger app than on Facebook itself, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen on the app itself. This is especially true inside of secret groups (see above, Nudity) where online discussions can take place away from parents, teacher, etc. By creating a secret group with only a handful of members, it allows for small groups to sext with all members simultaneously.

With the popularity of Messenger, it allows users to send text, images and even videos quickly and easily. Last year, students in Milwaukee live streamed themselves having sex. Not only were they probably embarrassed, it also qualifies as distributing child pornography.

Recently, a father from Texas shared a dialogue when a grown man, who was a stranger to him and his family, contacted his daughter via Facebook. The girl was smart enough not to engage the man, but her father pretended to be his daughter and then shared images from the conversation online to help parents realize the dangers on Facebook. One of the pictures the father shared is shown here.

This was one of the tamer questions the predator asked the young girl. In one of the messages, the predator mentioned that he saw a picture of the young girl with her mother, presumably from her Facebook account. This opens up all of her friends and family members to predators. For this reason, everyone should have their Facebook privacy settings set to prevent strangers

Sextortion (7 out of 10)

Sextortion, the act of forcing someone to commit lewd acts or send images/videos containing nudity is a serious concern for anyone, especially parents. Once any racy or inappropriate image is sent to someone, it can be used as leverage to force the person to send more images. I’ve seen cases where predators have used it against children still in grade school. In the case of Cassidy Wolf, a former Miss Teen USA, who was targeted for sextortion, the man arrested in the incident reportedly had taken remote control of as many as 150 webcams to extort his victims.

It most likely was the result of Ms. Wolf clicking on a link that downloaded malware onto her laptop. It is very common for people communicating online to send links to each other. Predators can use this practice to send malware to the person’s computer.

That however, is not the most common way that sextortion occurs. It frequently happens when one person voluntarily sends a racy picture/selfie of themselves to someone else. Once that happens, it becomes very valuable leverage to the predator, as the girl below finds out the hard way. While this video is a PSA and not an actual case, it is very realistic. Notice how many victims are listed in the video.

This is why nobody should ever send even one image to another person online!

Viruses (8 out of 10)

Facebook’s popularity makes it a great place for hackers and predators to spread their damaging coding. If you did not follow the link in the previous section that mentioned malware, you should go back and do so.

It shows just how easily it can be for hackers to trick people into downloading malicious software onto their computer, tablet or phone. What looks to be a link to show you funny cat videos or an article that would interest you should be avoided unless you know the source and can confirm its authenticity. This is where anti-virus software can help, by vetting sites before someone follows the link. Even they are not foolproof, but it’s a good start.

Even links sent by true friends should be avoided. They may have been tricked without knowing it and are only helping to spread the virus.

Bottom Line (7.5 out of 10)

There is no site/app out there that parents should not be concerned with having their children use. It’s not the site’s fault, however, but the people who use it where the concern lies. Common sense and wisdom can help prevent many of the problems that children (and adults) be avoided. However, common sense isn’t always so common and wisdom only comes with time and maturity, things by definition, children typically lack.

Facebook scores 7.5 out of 10 because of it’s versatility and popularity. Many other sites will have lower overall scores simply because they do not have features which could provide cause for concern. Overall, Facebook has some of the biggest risks, but the company does more than most other companies to help protect its customers. Still, they’re overwhelmed with the sheer volume of traffic, as mentioned in the section above regarding nudity.

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About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cybersafety advocate for several years. He is an adjunct professor at Thomas Jefferson University, where has been teaching several classes that involve using technology to improve the quality of their schoolwork.

As the founder of Safety Net, Joe provides a variety of presentations on improving online experiences, both in better educational performance and in cybersafety. It was after his own daughter came across inappropriate content online that got him involved in helping others in the area.

His work on cybersafety has been published by the Family Online Safety Institute, the Social Media Club, Calkins Media and more. He is also the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity, which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016.

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