Whether or not you're tweeting or sharing your daily thoughts on Facebook, you have to acknowledge it: Interacting with friends online is a fact of life for your children.
"These connections are really integral to the social lives of today's kids," says Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that helps families navigate the world of media and technology.
Besides the benefits, there are also risks. That's where you come in.
"It's a parent's responsibility to parent around the technology", says Shawn Marie Edgington, author of The Parent's Guide to Texting, Facebook and Social Media.
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all require children to be at least 13 years old to join. That's because of the "Children's Online Privacy Protection Act," which limits companies from collecting personal information about kids under 13. "
Some kids younger than 13 dodge those age limits by faking their birth date and setting up an account, whether their parents know it or not.
"Parents need to ask their children on a regular basis, ‘Do you have a Facebook account? Do your friends?'" Edgington says. She recommends that when you buy your child a cell phone, one of the conditions is that she can't get a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account until age 13 and you approve it.
If you’re tempted to make an exception for them, you might want to consider the message you're sending if you allow them to break the rules by lying, about whether they're mature enough to behave safely and responsibly, and about what you will do to monitor their activity (such as "friending" them).
Once your child is of age and has your permission, sit down together to set up the account. Use all the privacy restrictions available and don't give unnecessary information like cell phone numbers, Knorr says.
This is also a good time to talk about what not to post, such as your home address, your child's location, and any inappropriate pictures (including those that have "geotagging" that gives away the child's location.)
Instruct her never to "friend" anyone she doesn't know, and never to share her password, Edgington says. Tell her that she can come to you if anything happens online that makes her uncomfortable.
Setting Ground Rules
Write a contract for your child about how they behave on social media. Outline consequences: "If you take away a 16-year-old's cell phone, it's worse than taking away his car," Edgington says.
Remind your child that social rules apply online, Knorr says.
Explain that it comes down to how she wants to portray herself to the world, and that once something is online, it's hard to make it go away. "Everything your child posts is about his image and brand because it's going to be there forever," Edgington says. Colleges and employers check social networking sites and do Google searches on applicants.
Though the concept of long-term consequences may not click with your child right away, keep reinforcing it.
Spot-check your child's account and see what she's up to: what she's posting, who her friends are, and who she's following.
Figuring out how to do that can be touchy. When your child is 13, you can insist on having her password, says Edgington. However, an older teen might see that as an invasion of her privacy. Still, you are the parent.
If you're Facebook "friends" with your child, you can keep tabs on what's going on, but check with her to see if it's OK before friending her (and promise never to post on her page). Be aware that this can give you a false sense of security, since most teens are pretty savvy about blocking parents from seeing what they don't want them to see.
Some teens who know their parents are checking on them set up an alternate account. If you don't see much activity or many friends on her page, that might be the case. Set up a Google alert with your child's name so that if anything about her hits the Internet, you know about it immediately, Edgington says.
"You're the best judge of your kid," Knorr says. "If you think you have a kid who engages in risky behavior and can't be trusted, you'll have to police her online activities more closely."
Social media can take up a lot of time and energy.
If your child starts to stress about how many times her photos or posts are liked or retweeted, it's time to step in. "You want to raise a kid who feels she has internal self-worth" beyond that, Knorr says.
There are times when texting and checking Facebook is just not appropriate, such as during family dinners, catching up with relatives in person, at or after bedtime, and during class. Of course, texting or being online while driving is totally off limits, for safety's sake.
Watch your own behavior, too. "Start with your own usage as a parent," Knorr says. "Say, ‘I'm putting the phone away at dinner time because that's how we do it in our family. When we meet someone we have to make eye contact.' It's important for kids to learn how to socialize properly and be in the world without the stimulation of the online environment."