I know this sounds like a Nancy Drew novel, and I wish it were. I am repeatedly stunned by the novel, creative and sociopathic behavior of kids as they navigate and discover new ways of using social networking. For a parent to keep their kids safe it means constant attention to every news story that has facebook or bullying in its title. At the risk of being repetitive, I wanted to give you a link to a great article in this Sunday's NYtimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/us/05bully.html?_r=1&hp
I think at this point most parents are aware of the dangers of cyberbullying. But this article speaks to the issues of identity theft on facebook. I had heard a similar story first hand when a parent called me because her daughter was getting blamed for bad-mouthing kids on facebook. It turns out that their 12 year-old daughter had not signed up for facebook, but that someone( not their daughter) had created a page "in her name". The short story is that a "friend" of this girl thought it would be funny to set up a fake facebook page using her friend's name and bad mouth kids without having to take personal responsibility for it. Thank god mom and dad were great detectives, and doggedly pursued facebook and local authorities to help them figure out who had done this to their daughter. But the damage was already done, and this poor kid was getting blamed for saying hurtful things she had not said. Middle school is hard enough, and now having to contend with the school rumor mill was almost to much to bear.
This is a cautionary tale for parents. This underscores the need for constant supervision when it comes to young teens and their use of facebook. I know most parents are upset by the swearing their kids are using. I say, language be damned! That's the least of your problems. If you forbid your teen to use facebook, they will probably just go on at a friends house unbeknownst to you. The devil you know kind of applies here. If your young teen is insistent, here is what you can say, and your " I get it" moment. First, if you have not allowed your teen to go on, you should get on facebook yourself so you can plug your teen's name in the search engine to make sure they aren't using it surreptitiously or that someone isn't on in your teen's name. If you have given your permission albeit reluctantly, you can say "I know your friends are on facebook and you want to as well. I think it can be fun too, but I know sometimes that kids swear, say mean things about other kids, and post pictures that I wouldn't want you posting. So here is what we are going to do. For the first few months you are on facebook, I will go on at the end of every day/evening with you and make sure that everything you put on there is OK. No swearing, no sexual language, and no weird pictures. After a few months if it seems like you have the hang of it, then I will ask you a few times a week to go on with me. I want to respect your privacy, but I also want to make sure you are safe.
The good news here is that if you stay conversational about this rather than confrontative, you might actually be able to have some really interesting conversations about the kinds of things that your teen and his/her friends are doing on facebook. Rather than making a judgement, "that is so stupid, why would Jack put that up?" which only serves to enrage your kid and prompt him to defend his friends comment. You can ask a more open-ended question like "So what's up with what Jack wrote? Let your teen explain it to you, let them be your expert in teen speak. Think of this as an information gathering expedition rather than an interrogation. Your teen is playing around with developing a persona, and is very self-conscious of your attention as they play around with different identities. Its not so different from when your 3 and 4 year olds played dress up and acted like mommies and daddies and teachers and soldiers. Give them the space and the freedom to pretend, with the same watchful eye that you gave to your warrior ninjas.