Social media

How to protect your kids from Facebook sex offenders

Jan. 24, 2013 at 1:11 PM ET

Reuters file /
Facebook bars sex offenders from using the social network, but law enforcement says it's still an issue.

Can sex offenders be barred from Facebook by the courts? The jury is still out.

A federal court of appeals this week overturned an Indiana law that prohibited sex offenders from using Facebook and other social media networks. But that doesn't mean potential predators have easy access to Facebook.

It's not the first time a state law has been ruled unconstitutional because it infringed on the right to free speech. Facing a similar ruling, Louisiana in August passed a law that requires convicted sex offenders to include their sex offender status in their profiles, as well as the type of offense and where it occurred. Violators face imprisonment with hard labor for a term between two and 10 years without parole and a fine up to $1,000.

In Alabama, sex offenders must register social media accounts with local authorities. Authorities monitor the accounts for inappropriate photos, such as those that indicate an offender is living with children. That's not allowed for some offenders, according to the Jefferson County (Ala.) Sex Offender Unit.

While Facebook specifically bans registered sex offenders from using the site, the problem persists. And even law enforcement officials say it's unlikely to go away — laws or no.

"They are going to find a way to access children and social media is easy access," Sgt. Jacob Reach with the Jefferson County Sex Offender Unit said in a statement.

So what can parents do to keep their kids safe from online predators? Parents can use Facebook's privacy settings to restrict whom their kids talk to on the network. Facebook has added new privacy shortcuts on homepages, which should make it easier for parents to find their children's settings and make changes.

Sit down with your child, log into Facebook and open the lock icon in the upper right corner of the page. Click "Who can see my stuff" and then "Who can see my future posts?" The drop-down menu will allow you to choose friends — but if you want to further limit viewers, choose "custom" and specify a smaller circle of trusted friends and family. You can also limit the people who can instant message your child on Facebook by choosing the "stricter" setting under "Who can contact me?"

However, unlike the custom setting for posts, you can't restrict chats to selected people. Further, Facebook has begun testing a feature that lets strangers pay to send a message to anyone on Facebook. Read more: Who's Worth a $100 to Message on Facebook?

Because of these safety holes, parents should monitor their children's online activity and encourage kids to let them know immediately if they receive a message that makes them uncomfortable. Parents can also consider social media monitoring software that provides alerts when messages or posts are made that contain possibly dangerous words.

But the old advice to kids may still be the best: Whether on the street or online, don't talk to strangers.

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