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Facebook Timeline Lessons

This new tool offers life lessons parents can share with their kids, from privacy and accountability to really knowing your 'Friends'

By now everyone knows that Facebook has introduced a new feature called Timeline. The redesign turns each Facebook wall into a virtual scrapbook that includes everything a person has ever done or said on Facebook. Not surprisingly, many teens think this is great. Aside from the expansive new layout, they love the idea of creating a narrative in which they play the starring role.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the way Timeline makes details about the past so accessible. Many people posted on Facebook with the assumption it would swallow up things that are trivial, thoughtless, stupid or ill-advised. While "older posts" have always been available, getting at them was tedious and time-consuming. Timeline encourages visitors to review each other's lives year-by-year and automatically highlights items that got a lot of comments.

For parents, Timeline creates a teachable moment. As kids learn to use it, parents have an ideal opportunity to raise questions, make suggestions and inject more thinking into the use of social media. Before starting this conversation, consider curating your own Timeline if you're a Facebook user. Or visit Facebook for a quick overview of what's possible. Then, use Timeline to underscore a few life lessons.

1. Put your best foot forward

Timeline opens with a cover photo that stretches all the way across the page, a dramatic intro that confers a sort of instant celebrity. Because everyone (including you) can see it, your child should choose an image that captures his or her personality without giving away too much personal information.

The process is like choosing an outfit for the first day of school or a job interview. You want to create an impression that's consistent with the relationships you hope to have.

2. Don't depend on a computer to do your thinking

The default version of Timeline is created by a computer program, and it gives extra space to posts that got a lot of attention from friends. These won't necessarily be the posts that sum up your child's life.

The best way to take back biographical control is to use Activity Log, a feature that lets your child give a thumbs up or down to past posts, photos, links and other activities. To get rid of an item, run the cursor over its top right corner. Click the pencil icon and choose "Delete" or "Hide from Timeline." Or click on a star so the post is highlighted and stretches across both Timeline columns.

3. You are accountable for what you do

Being an adult means taking responsibility for your actions. If nothing else, Timeline underscores the point that the Internet is not a free zone where anything goes. Seeing the sweep of a life – even a young life – may make your child more mindful.

Should Facebook chronicle the trivial or the consequential, the things you do or the thoughts they inspire, what you like or what you detest? These questions don't have automatic answers, but just asking them encourages the kind of "examined life" that wise people starting with Socrates have encouraged the rest of us to lead.

4. History is slippery

Timeline makes it possible to edit the past – at least as it appears on Facebook. In addition to hiding or deleting old posts, users can now add events that occurred BF – before Facebook started in 2004. They can also move events to a new part of Timeline simply by clicking "Change Dates."

All of this allows young people to shape what the world knows about them – and to revise it as they get older. At the very least, this should make for interesting dinner table conversation about how history gets made. Who gets to choose the details? Who gets to interpret them?

5. Privacy has a purpose

Timeline makes it much, much easier for people to go back and get information about each other. This creates a potential bonanza for stalkers – as well as identity thieves, who will now be able to find easy answers to typical security questions, like the name of your first pet.

Encourage your child to make use of the privacy tools that Timeline provides. Every post can be designated: Public (everyone can see), Friends (everyone on your friend list can see), Only me (useful for things you want to remember but not share) and Custom.

The Custom option is cumbersome, but it has real value. By creating lists, your child can make certain posts visible only to the soccer team, the chess club, the people he met while working a part-time job, or relatives she sees only at Christmas.

6. Know your 'Friends'

By default, Timeline is visible to anyone your child has accepted as a friend. If your child has been casual about adding or aggressive about recruiting friends, this is a good time to cull the list. A quiz call What's Her Face-book was created by tech students at Yale to help users get real about who is actually a friend. The app shows random pictures of "friends" to see if a user can identify them.

As the authors point out, even pseudo friends have permission to share personal info with third party apps on Facebook. Now, with Timeline, they will also be privy to a person's entire Facebook history. Kids who don't want to edit their friend list will need to think more carefully about how they can make their posts "suitable for all audiences."

7. Review your work

If your child doesn't take time to design a Timeline, Facebook will do it for them. Either way, it's important to see yourself as others will see you. To do this, click the cog under the cover photo. On the drop-down menu, choose "View as" to see what the public can see. Or enter the name of friend to get their view of you.

Encourage your child to use this as an exercise in self-understanding. What do people see when they look at you? How does it match what you know about yourself?

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