In the September issue of Parents magazine, a mom wrote in to advice columnist Rosie Pope asking what she ought to do about a teen’s suggestive selfies that kept popping up on her 5-year-old son’s Facebook account.

Tell the girl to knock it off? Ignore it?

To which Pope replied, to paraphrase: What the $*@$%! is your 5-year-old doing with a Facebook account, lady?

She’s British and it was Parents magazine, so it was a bit gentler than that, but not by much.

It occurred to us that some parents, though surely not you — maybe the parents down the street with a tween who walks the dog cradling an iPhone and stops for a selfie every five feet — might like some general social media advice from local teachers and experts. About setting limits. About pulling rank. About how young is too young for fill-in-the-blank.

*Spoiler alert*

Five is too %!&[email protected]# young for Facebook, but maybe not for, say, Club Penguin.

Here are six can’t-miss pointers on what makes sense, when. 

1. Hold your kid’s hand on the Internet. At least at first.

This time of year, Peter Robinson is busy hosting orientations for parents of seventh-and eighth-graders eager to bring school-issued iPads home.

“One of the things we say is, ‘Be involved with your child’s online life,” said Robinson, technology director for the Auburn School Department. Start with this fundamental expectation: “If you’re using those kind of things at home, you’re doing them where other people can see your screen, in the kitchen or the dining table. We always tell parents: A student in a closed, private bedroom with a WiFi connected-device is really asking for trouble.”

Anita Charles is a Bates College professor and an expert in multi-media literacy and early childhood learning.

She’s also the mother of five. 

In the early days of the Internet with her children, now ages 13 to 20, if they wanted to look something up, she’d sit down and look it up with them.

“There’s a huge danger in letting kids just do it on their own,” Charles said. “You could put in ‘dolphin’ and somebody might have that as a code name for ‘penises.’ If a kid is doing that by themselves, they can get scared, they can also get intrigued, and they might also feel like that’s the norm.”

2. Start warnings early and often

Remember the cautionary tales about not taking candy from a stranger, not helping someone look for their lost dog and not hopping into any blue vans? The same applies online.

Robinson said messages around Internet safety should start in elementary school: “You only talk to people when you know who they are. You don’t give away any private information.”

Charles is a fan of bundling online education with sex and drug education in middle school.

“I think Internet predator information should be included with that,” she said. “We need to really teach kids, and probably do it in a way that semi-scares them like we do with drugs and sex and everything else. Someone is going to say, ‘Hey, you look cute, will you friend me?’ ‘Oh, I look cute? I’d love to.'” 

Kids need to hear technology can be violated — Hello, Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton! — and that their trust can be, too.

“Think before you hit the send button,” Robinson said. “Don’t think just because you’re in a relationship with someone that it’s OK to send nude pictures and things like that and they’ll never share them. We all know the history is that that does happen.”

Coach kids to ask themselves, “Do I want this attached to my name in 10 years?” said Nate Jalbert, information technology teacher at Lewiston Regional Technical Center.

“Especially with employers looking at social media,” he said. “They might be going off to college, they’ve got to be really careful posting pictures at parties. An employer is going to say, ‘No way, I don’t want to hire you if you act this way.'”

Think that photo doing a keg stand next to a giraffe will just disappear into the ether? It won’t.

“(Using an app like Snapchat,) they think, ‘Oh, I’m going to send this picture, it’s going to be erased in six seconds.’ That’s not the reality,” Jalbert said. “There’s always going to be that fingerprint or trail left behind.”

3. Consider loosening the reins at 13

There is no perfect age to dive into social media, but both Charles and Robinson agree that 13 — the minimum age required by Facebook — is probably a good place to start.

“I’m always reluctant to give absolutes,” said Charles. “I tend to err on the side of caution. I have made it clear to my kids they need to be at least 13 to have a Facebook account. I think the longer we can hold off on the social media piece, the more we can keep our kids safe. I don’t think it has to be forever.”

Both also favor having kids only friend people in the virtual world that they first know in the actual world. Charles also requires her kids to friend her — that way she can check out what they’re up to.

Twitter is a little different, Robinson said. Following experts or celebrities is part of the point, as long as you’re not engaging anyone you don’t know.

For early social dabblers, somewhere around age 5 and up might be a good time to consider educational apps and kid-friendly sites like Webkins or Disney’s Club Penguin. Both have interaction with others without room to share personal information.

“There are things that you can say but they’re all sort of scripted, it’s all anonymous, no real names,” said Robinson. “You have to create a name for your penguin and it’s not allowed to be anything remotely like your name.”

Charles likes sites and apps like that with boundaries — there’s no way to stumble into questionable content (i.e. the rest of the Internet).

“The dangers of the social media is that it’s infinite,” she said. “You hit one button, it leads to the next, leads to the next. It’s very divergent. It’s kind of the whole world. I guess it’s a question of, ‘At what age do you want to expose the child to the potential of the whole world?'”

4. Beware ads and extras

Coach kids of all ages not to succumb to wayward clicks.

“You can’t escape the sidebar ads, the ads that flash at you, the ones at the bottom of the page,” Charles said. “All of a sudden you’re seeing an ad for Pretty Little Purses and you’re clicking on it and the next thing you know, you’ve signed up to get emails from PrettyLittlePurses.com. I don’t think that many of us, including adults, are very adept at resisting that manipulation.”

Say a game is vetted and kid-friendly, without pop-ups or banner ads. Tempted to give little Jimmy your iPad to occupy himself while the adults chat?

Still think twice.

“(Sometimes) the publisher will give you the game for free but it’s not the whole game,” said Jalbert. “They make you pay for upgrades and special features. The parents will have their credit card attached to their app store or Play Store account and they just keep getting charged and charged. A younger kid doesn’t realize that it costs real money. The publishers are loving it because they’re making tons of money.”

5. It’s OK. Be the bad guy. 

Ask for passwords and ask early: “You have every right to know your child’s passwords for anything they’re signing up for up until they’re 18, technically. I think the younger you start that expectation, the easier it is,” Robinson said. “I think if you wait until you’re thinking that perhaps something is going on, say age 15 or 16, and then say, ‘Well, I want your password,’ that’s going to be a pretty tough conversation.”

Check kids’ browsing history: “Some people will say that that sets kids up to think that you don’t trust them,” Charles said. “To me that’s a silly argument. Do we trust our kids to put themselves to bed when they’re 5 years old?”

Do any checking-up out in the open: “Rather than grabbing the iPad after the kid’s gone to bed and going on a fishing expedition as it were, doing it in an engaged way is the better way to go about it,” Robinson said. “Then it becomes a discussion about the positive aspects rather than, ‘Dad’s looking to see if I’m doing anything bad’ kind of thing.”

Lastly, set likely-unpopular rules, such as that computers and cell phones have to stay in a public area overnight (no squirreling them away in your room) and no devices at the table during dinner (same goes for you, mom and dad).

“I do get push-back,” said Charles. “I get a lot of push-back. Parents have to be willing to tolerate some dissatisfaction from their children. My kids have been furious at times with me.”

6. Let common sense prevail

It’s all a balancing act, Charles said, when it comes to letting kids enter the information age and learn to self-regulate without giving them enough room to get themselves in trouble. It’s additionally tough because there’s no turning to your parents for advice; when you were a teen, there probably was no social media.

When in doubt, deploy a little common sense.

Charles laughed when told about the mom who’d written to Rosie Pope.

“It’s like bringing your 5-year-old into a bar and then saying, ‘The men are swearing around my child, what do I do about this? Kick the men out of the bar?'” she said. “C’mon.”

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