Facebook last week lifted its restrictions on teens, who can now make their posts public and allow anyone to follow their accounts. Previously, posts by kids ages 13 to 17 could be viewed only by friends and the friends of their friends.
There are the predators and the trolls (those who post inflammatory comments online to upset just about anyone who catches their attention), and there are the adults in kids' lives such as teachers, coaches and would-be employers who may not be forgiving when it comes to indiscreet posts and photos. While Facebook's public posting restriction wasn't foolproof -- plenty of kids have gotten in trouble over a post -- at least it was in place.
Facebook says it's taking precautions. When teens join the service, their privacy settings will be automatically set to share information only with friends. Teens who choose to change their settings will be asked twice with a pop-up notification whether they are sure they want to share information broadly.
Now is a good time to remind your kids to keep their settings to just friends or to share with just a group of specified friends, a feature that's built into every post. They'll find the sharing dropdown next to the post button when they add updates. Choose "Custom" and then select "Specific people or lists" to type in the friends who will be able to see their updates. Alternately, kids can tell Facebook who not to share the post with -- but this should raise a red flag. If they really don't want someone to see what they're posting, it probably shouldn't be posted at all.
But there's another risk associated with the new policy. Will public posts be mined for targeting more ads to teens? While it's too early to know for sure, it's a safe bet that companies will pay to learn more about this lucrative teen market and use the information for highly targeted advertising. And it may expose teens to ads that hide their true purpose.
"As adults get better at avoiding suspicious websites and fake email attachments, some hackers are shifting their strategy to go after a family's weakest link -- kids," said David Kennedy, CEO of TrustedSec, in a recent report.
Cybercriminals can use your child as an easy entry point into your home PC. Clicking on an ad or a link in a post can lead kids to websites that infect computers with malware. Once access is gained, any number of things can happen, such as recording credit card data and bank logins.
Remind younger Facebook users of these important Internet safety rules:
1. Don't click on links that take you outside a known website before checking the web address. To do this, hover your cursor over the link to see where it goes -- if it looks odd, don't click. Scammers have frequently used Facebook links to lure users with offers for free stuff like iPads, as well as with juicy celebrity gossip and shocking stories. Expect this practice to increase with the new teen policy.
2. Beware of third party apps that can contain viruses or include offers for fake add-ons. Earlier this month, security software firm Symantec found a new Facebook app that promised to alert users when someone viewed their Facebook profile. The app's website was designed to look like a Facebook page and encouraged visitors to download software to their computers. Malware was installed that logged every keystroke and sent the data to the attacker's email address. Apps that offer features not found on Facebook are never legitimate and new users, especially young ones, should be told to steer clear.
On balance, allowing kids to use Facebook as a public forum is not worth the risk. Keep their profiles private and review safe online behavior. Do they want to be heard? Encourage them to write for their school's newspaper.
Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past six years. She has designed and manages several international websites. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at email@example.com.