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Facebook Removes Safety Features for Teenagers

NOTE: This article originally ran in the Chicago Tribune and was written by Mary Sanchez

Mom, Dad, here is your popup warning: Your teen is being wooed by Facebook.

From now on, teens will be allowed to opt out of privacy settings and choose to post publically. This means that adept strangers -- including those of malign intent -- will be able to view a teenager's postings, pictures, videos, updates and conversations with friends. Strangers will be able to "follow" teenager's timelines.

Facebook announced the changes to privacy settings for 13-to-17-year olds in a blog post. "Teens are among the savviest people using social media, and whether it comes to civic engagement, activism or their thoughts on a new movie, they want to be heard," it read.

Now, young people can reach lots of strangers, and they can reach them. Never mind that those new "friends" can include pedophiles and strangers with a penchant to bully and harass.

No doubt about it, Facebook just made it easier for creeps to stalk via the Internet.

A lot of children will think that sounds just grand. After all, isn't connecting with people who you don't already know part of the allure of the digital age? Meeting lots of new people online is thrilling to a mindset not mature enough to discern the dangers.

If Facebook carries on with the new policy -- and there are few indications it won't -- it's fair to say that it has just turned in the social responsibility card that once distinguished it from other social media sites. Facebook has always been better than Twitter and other sites at compelling users to post as themselves.

It's well known that Facebook users are not just users -- they're the product being sold. The company is being investigated for how it proposes to manage the privacy of adult users' content. The Federal Trade Commission began an inquiry in September to determine if the company would break a regulatory agreement in how it plans to gain permission before using personal information in advertising.

For any product or service, a good rule of thumb is "Buyer/user beware." But when it comes to teenagers, society has long required that extra steps be taken to protect them.

Coincidentally, Facebook announced the change just as Americans were learning of yet another case of a young girl committing suicide after being bullied on social media. A Florida sheriff cited the Facebook postings of a 14-year-old in charging her and a 12-year-old girl with the felony of aggravated stalking. The two were charged in connection with the suicide of another 12-year-old girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick.

Rebecca leapt to her death from an abandoned cement factory silo after being targeted for months with cyber bullying, some of it via Facebook.

"Watch what your children do online," Sheriff Grady Judd was quoted saying in the New York Times. "Pay attention. Quit being their best friend and be their best parent."

As many parents can attest, monitoring or banning social media in the home does not keep teens from using it. For that reason alone, it would be far more helpful if Facebook and other social media platforms took the attitude that, by default, they are parents, too.


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