The rapid rise and huge success of such social networking websites as MySpace, Friendster and Facebook has come at some social, and much individual, grief. Stories of manipulation, harassment and predatory sexual behavior increased just as fast as the virtual “populations” of these sites, which is estimated to total over 100 million people – in the U.S. alone.
These numbers (Facebook has 35 million members in North America) are hard to imagine at times, whereas the psychological and criminal games that some people play are not. They are the same things people have been doing to one another since the dawn of recorded history. Only the environment has changed. And it’s when one environment (the virtual electronic one) begins to invade another (the physical, personal one) that trouble can arise.
Executives and managers at MySpace, Facebook and the other “socialnets” have been working against fraud and predation since the very beginning. They all have codes of conduct, rules of behavior, complaint procedures and online monitors to ensure a safe, positive networking experience. There are proposed laws, on the federal and state levels, to criminalize online harassment and other acts, but the best response to the dangers of the socialnets is a personal one. There is no one better prepared or equipped to protect yourself and your family members than you.
Online safety basics
Besides not giving out your personal information to anyone, ever, you should sign up for socialnets with a secondary (“extra” or “special”) email account from one of the free providers like Gmail, Hotmail or AOL. It is a great deal harder to track someone with a webmail address than someone using a work/business address or a personal one from a high-profile provider.
This caution should extend even to what you disclose about your activities, even when using a fake name. If you start giving out your location, phone number, school or business name, etc., you are providing stalkers and predators clue after clue to your whereabouts and your identity. You might think twice about what pictures you post, too. It is inconceivable that some young people are posting sexually charged photos on socialnet pages that have clues to their identity, but it happens still.
Children and adults
If you are a legal adult, you can choose to release as much personal info as you wish, but you would be well advised to be careful, of course. If you are a parent of a pre-teen, you would of course need to monitor your child’s activities online, and therefore you need to become even more familiar with email filters, online access restrictions, passwords and other software tools. In addition to limiting time on certain sites, you can also use various electronic gadgets to control access to the computer as a whole.
Of course, making existing and popular sites safer for children seems to be a losing proposition, as much of the allure of these socialnets for adults from 18 to 80 is their daring, even “salacious” character. In response to this trend, a number of “kid safe” socialnets have been developed and launched – Whyville.com and Imbee.com were two of the first – that have been built from the ground up for kids, usually 8 to 15 years of age. Since there is a great difference between the two age extremes, the site and its features are completely customizable by parents and can be tailored to a child’s age as well as personality.
Common sense is best
For adults, taking risks comes with the territory, and some personalities can take more than others. Be realistic about your own personality, and the degree to which you can take being flamed, insulted, propositioned or yelled at (IN ALL CAPS!). Some online socialnet veterans like the excitement and fast pace of chat rooms, even unmonitored ones, while others prefer a more sedate and predictable online experience. You are free to choose your own type of online attitude, but do remember that “what goes around comes around,” and that there is a good reason that all cultures develop standards of appropriate behavior.
For children, there are no decisions to make, only adult ones to influence. Well-behaved 10-year-olds doing well at school, helping out at home and leading as responsible a life as possible for their age will probably get some input as to how their social networking life will play out. There are a sufficient number of controls to make any parent feel fairly safe. However, the greatest safety lies in the relationship that parents have with their children. Talk to them honestly, preferably after you make sure you’re using the lingo correctly, in case you are not entirely web-savvy yourself.
At whatever age, using common sense and appropriate precautions is the name of the game. Spend some “Google time” searching for and reading up on netiquette and online behavior if you do not know exactly what to expect. Talk to friends, family and coworkers about their experiences with socialnets and online activity in general, and be forthcoming about your concerns. Young or old or in between, openness and honesty will pay off handsomely when it comes time to discuss what everyone should know about staying safe and enjoying online social networks.