Facebook is the world’s biggest social network. Every day, more than a billion people use the service to post status updates, photos and videos, or just to see what their friends are up to.

Children are only allowed to join once they’re aged 13 or over. But in reality, lots of people younger than that use the service. This is because Facebook can’t check how old you are, it only asks you not to lie. Hence it’s simple for younger users to sign up.

Facebook’s popularity makes it a great way to share information, but it also brings inherent dangers. As such, it’s important your children stay safe while using it.

Connecting with people

Facebook is really a big friends’ network – the more friends you have, the more you’ll see, whether it’s status updates, links to articles, or photos and videos. Anyone can send a friend request to anyone – you don’t need to have met the person in real life, or even know about them. As long as you can search for them, you can send a friend request.

However, you don’t have to accept every friend request you receive. If you do accept, they’ll be able to see your posts, comment on them and ‘like’ them. And you’ll be able to do the same to their posts. If you don’t accept the request, the person won’t be notified, they just won’t get access to your profile.

You can set your profile so anyone can see it without sending a friend request. But this isn’t advised for safety reasons.

Parents cooking boy and girl on sofa on tablet

Dangers of Facebook

The more people that use a social network, the higher chance there is that some of them will be dangerous. Seeing as Facebook is the world’s most popular social network, and it’s so easy to connect with people, there are many dangers to be aware of.

  1. Grooming: Unless they take proper precautions, your child might be at risk of being contacted by sexual predators. Often these predators pose as other children in order to befriend kids, then build up a trusting relationship. Once this is established, the predator might convince them to send explicit photos of themselves, or to meet up in person where they can abuse them.
  2. Oversharing: Unless they’re taught the dangers, children could play into predators’ hands by oversharing photos of themselves. There’s also the danger of the child being exposed to explicit content.
  3. Cyberbullying: But the danger isn’t only from strangers. Your child is at risk of being cyberbullied by people in their peer group, and being subjected to peer pressure to do or say things they otherwise wouldn’t. Internet Matters has a wealth of information about cyberbullying.

These may be more traditional ‘playground’ dangers, but because of the exposure of the web, and the fact photos and updates can be stored forever, they could have far worse repercussions for your child.

Internet Matters, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping children stay safe online, has advice for parents whose children use social media.

Tips to stay safe on Facebook

Facebook includes built-in tools to help you protect your child’s privacy. Take some time to set them up and secure your child’s Facebook account.

1: Who can see their posts?

If your child has given their age as between 13 (the minimum age for using Facebook) and 18, their default setting will be to share posts only with friends. However, these friends could share your child’s posts with their friends, so private and personal information can quickly spread.

Facebook privacy screenshot

Click the padlock icon in the top right of the screen, then select Privacy Check-up dinosaur.

Facebook screenshot who can see posts

Use the drop-down menu to adjust who sees what your child posts. We’d advise selecting ‘Friends’.

2: Control friend requests

You can stop them receiving friend requests from strangers, too.

Facebook screenshot Friend Requests

Click the padlock icon, and select ‘Who can contact me?

Change who can send them friend requests from ‘Everyone’ to ‘Friends of Friends’.

Remember to remind them never to accept friend requests from strangers.

3: Tagging

Facebook screenshot Tagging

If a friend tags your child in a post, that post will be added to your child’s Timeline and shared with their friends.

The Timeline Review section lets your child review a post every time they’re tagged and, if they wish, to not add it to their Timeline (though it will be added to the Timeline of whoever tagged them).

Click the drop-down arrow at the top right and select Settings, then Timeline and Tagging from the left menu.

Look for ‘Review tags people add to your own posts before the tags appear on Facebook’ and select ‘Enabled’.

4: Location Tagging

Turning off location tagging will also help keep your child safe, as it won’t publish their location along with a post. To turn it off on your child’s phone, you’ll have to go into the phone’s settings.

5: Create friend lists

Facebook screenshot Friend list

Friend lists allow you to share different information with different groups of people – maybe you could have one for their ‘School Friends’, and one for ‘Family’, for example.

Hover over Friends on the left-hand side and select ‘More’ when it appears.

Click Create New List, give it a name and add the names of friends you’d like to include.

Click Create, and you’re done.

You can add or remove friends whenever you like in the ‘Manage List’ section.

To post just to the recipients of the list, select the drop-down menu and scroll down to find the list.

6: Report bullying

Facebook Report screenshot

If your child is bullied through Facebook, it’s best to report it through the Social Reporting feature. This is found using the drop-down arrow in the corner of any post under Report Post.

7: Blocking

Screenshot Facebook blocking

Block the bully so they can’t contact your child again. Click the three dot icon on the bully's Timeline and then select the Block option.

8: App privacy

You should also tweak the privacy settings for any apps and games used through Facebook.

Facebook App Privacy

Click the drop-down arrow at the top right and select Settings, then Apps in the main menu.

Click an app to change its privacy settings, or tap the cross to remove anything not being used.

9: Deactivate and delete the account

If all else fails, you can deactivate your child’s account.

Facebook deactivate account

Click the drop-down menu, select Settings - Security and Deactivate your account. This will suspend all their Facebook activity.

To permanently delete their account, go to the drop-down menu ‘Help’, and type “How do I permanently delete my account?” Then follow the link to submit your request.

This will deactivate the account for 14 days; if it isn’t used within that period, it will be deleted forever.

Is there anything else parents can do?

It’s important to have a dialogue with your children in which you make clear the dangers of Facebook. Not only is it vital they’re aware of the risks to themselves, they should make sure they don’t bully, mistreat or subject to peer pressure anyone else using the service.

Encourage them to think before they post something, and stress that they should never send explicit photos of themselves to anyone, friends included. Most importantly of all, make sure they let you know if they see anything untoward or threatening on Facebook, and create an environment in which they feel comfortable approaching you about potentially sensitive or embarrassing subject matter.