Millions of people, including school children, use a computer, mobile phone or another digital device to participate in social networking sites. This combination has the potential to be dangerous. The information being shared or the "friends" on the other end of the connection may lead to trouble for unsuspecting individuals.
According to ComScore data, Facebook now commands 41 percent of all traffic on social-destination sites. Myspace, Gmail and Twitter follow. Parents who are unaware of these modes of communication should educate themselves to protect their children. While some of these sites have age requirements, many younger children are circumventing this requirement by lying about age — something that is difficult to verify online. Perhaps most disturbing, some adults are masking their ages to target children.
Many kids are logging in every day to chat. According to 2006 studies by Pew Internet Research, 38 percent of respondents ages 12 to 14 said they had an online profile of some sort, and 42 percent said they logged in each day to chat with friends. Because this research was compiled four years ago, it's safe to assume the percentage of students online is now much higher.
Children may not realize what is safe with regards to social-networking sites. Although parents may feel out-paced by their technologically savvy children, it is important for them to be informed and involved in their children's online interactions. Here are some steps parents can take to make the process fun but safe.
- Discuss privacy. Adolescents may think that only their friends will view their private information. While privacy settings on social networking sites can be established, if a child befriends someone he or she thinks is safe, that person will have access to information, too. Certain information, such as social security numbers, addresses, birthdays, account numbers, etc. should never be made public on a site.
- Talk about sexual predators. No parent wants to think about an individual preying on his or her child. But the Internet is home to many sexual predators who use social networking sites to target victims. Parents should inform their children not to accept friend requests from individuals they really don't know. While this may seem to counter what the sites were designed to do, it's better to be safe than have a long list of friends.
- Remember that information cannot be taken back. Inform children that once information is shared online, it has a funny way of always remaining somewhere in cyberspace. It's very difficult to delete information once it has been shared; there is a digital record of it. Also, even if a child removes himself or herself from a social networking site, it's safe to assume that his or her information is still being stored in a database.
- Don't post any information you wouldn't want everyone to see. Social networking sites are not private places. Language, photos and information may be seen by a larger audience. Therefore, if a child wouldn't feel comfortable swearing in front of his or her teacher, that kind of language shouldn't be used online. What's more, some social networking sites make limited profile information available to advertisers and target marketers. There are few secrets online these days.
- View children's pages. It's a good idea to see what children are doing online. There are parental monitoring software programs that can limit certain Web sites or track Web surfing. Also, a parent can simply ask to view a child's social networking page to check on friends and activity.