With the phenomenal success of sites such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com, the numbers and variety of social networking websites are exploding on the Internet. Some, such as MySpace and Facebook, attract millions of varied users and others may be targeted at fewer individuals with very specific interests. All share the objective of allowing “members” to communicate, or “network,” with other members, and all require that users share some information about themselves. Social networking sites can be a great place to meet other people with your interests. They can be a fun place to meet and interact with friends. The many positives of these sites, however, come with some real dangers—if you don’t use them wisely. This report provides tips for safely using social networking sites.
What are Social Networking Sites?
Social networking sites are online communities where people from all over the world can meet and share common interests. There are hundreds of these sites, some more well known or larger than others. Joining a site is usually free; and after you join, you typically set up a personalized profile or provide other information (such as a personal blog) that other members can see. Members then communicate using tools provided by the site — instant messaging, chat rooms, blogs, and email. On many sites members can post pictures and videos. Some sites allow other members to post comments on your profile or blog.
The first social networking sites were created by and targeted at young adults (teens, college students, and 20-somethings), with whom such sites are still hugely popular. However, sites intended for adult users and children, even young children, continue to mushroom.
Tips for Safely Using Social Networking Sites
Following these practices can help older teens and adults stay safe while networking online. Tips for parents of younger children follow.
Protect your personal information. Never post online personal information such as full name, address, telephone numbers, social security number, or account numbers.
Protect your identity. Information that could help someone identify you and where you live should never be posted online. For students, this includes information such as the school they attend, sports team, clubs, where they work, and where they hang out.
Choose your screen name carefully. Your screen name shouldn't give away too much information about you. For example, don't use your full name, your age, or your hometown. Someone could combine clues from your screen name and other information in your profile to figure out who you are and where you live.
Don't post anything you want to keep private. Before posting any information or material online—an email, instant message, picture, video, or blog—consider whether you want it to be read or seen by everyone. The Net is wide open. Emails can be forwarded to others by the receiver. Instant messages can be saved. Pictures can be saved and altered. Even if you delete information or photos, for example, from your page, they may still reside on another computer and they may have been posted on another site.
StraightTalk tip: What you post online today can have an impact on your future. Some employers are checking social networking sites and other Internet sites to see what a prospective employee may have posted or what may have been posted about them. And an employer doesn't have to tell you if a posting was the reason you weren't hired. Some colleges and universities are also checking out what prospective students have posted.
Be careful about adding people to your friends or buddy lists. People you meet online may not be what they claim to be. For example, someone can pretend to be older or younger than they actually are and you have no way of knowing if they are telling the truth. Predators also may seek contact this way.
A cautionary story: In spite of security efforts on many social networking sites, little prevents predators from disguising their intent and signing up for membership. A friend who belonged to a large social network site followed the recommended practices to protect her identity. Yet she received a suggestive email to her onsite mailbox from a stranger. She deleted it without responding. The man continued to send emails, each one more threatening and abusive. Our friend responded to none of the emails and reported them immediately to the site administrators and the police. Although she felt that the predator had no way to know her name and address, threats of bodily harm were still terrifying. The site shut down the man’s profile immediately. Eventually, the police identified the abusive “site member” as a convicted rapist and jailed him for violation of parole. This true story should serve as a caution to everyone: If you receive any suspicious communication or if any behavior you observe on a social network site doesn’t seem right, report it immediately to site administrators.
Be wary if someone you met online wants to meet in person. Check the person out thoroughly before you decide to meet them in person. Ask your friends if they know the person. Use a search engine to find out any information about them. If you do decide to meet them, meet them during the day in a public place and with friends you trust. Make sure you tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be back.
Tips for Parents
Parents can help their children conduct online activities safely. Here are some pointers.
Make sure that your children are using age-appropriate sites. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and Rule requires sites that collect, maintain, or use personal information from children under age 13 get parental consent. Some social networking sites require parental consent. Some set membership at a particular age (such as 14) but do not have a way to verify the age of members.
Have your children show you how they use the Internet. Review their profiles and blogs with them. Discuss with them the importance of keeping their personal information and family information private. Discuss with them the importance of posting only information that you and they are comfortable with others seeing and knowing. Help them set limits and guidelines.
Use privacy settings. Review and set privacy settings provided by your ISP and the social networking site. ISP privacy settings may allow you to control where your children can go on the Internet. Social networking site privacy settings may allow you to restrict who can access and post on your child's page.
Tell them to trust their feelings or suspicions. Discuss with them the importance of coming to you or another trusted adult if they feel uncomfortable or threatened by something or someone online.
The many social networking sites can provide enjoyment and enhance communication among friends and among people across the globe with shared interests. Enjoy…but protect yourself.
For more information
These sites provide more tips and information about social networking sites and helping children, tweens, and teens practice online safety.
Social Networking Sites: A Parent's Guide from the FTC
How to Teach Young People Safe Online Practices from the National Cyber Security Alliance
The NetSmartz Workshop from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has tips and activities for kids, and teens, and information for parents and other adults: NetSmartzKids, NSTeens, and Smartz411: Internet Safety Helpdesk.
Blog Beware from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Children's Privacy and Safety on the Internet: A Resource Guide for Parents from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Prepared for Corning Credit Union by Remar Sutton & Associates, October 2007. All rights reserved.