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Safer social networking


Social networking describes a variety of online services like Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, online games such as World of Warcraft and Moshi Monsters and virtual worlds such as Club Penguin. These services let people communicate with others online. This can enable young people to stay in touch with friends and family and join in fun fantasy worlds and games. However, children may forget who they are communicating with online and disclose too much about themselves. They may also behave in ways that they wouldn’t offline.

“Social networking services” refers here to a wide-range of rapidly developing services tools and practices. Social networking services can be broadly defined as Internet- or mobile-device-based social spaces designed to facilitate communication, collaboration and content sharing across networks of contacts.

Social networking services allow users to manage, build and represent their social networks online. Services usually (but not always) include other individuals; they might also include the profiles of events, companies, even political parties. They may let you add anyone in the network as your friend or contact, or they might ask both parties to agree all connections

Social networking services typically support the public display of networks, although they may offer privacy restrictions or facilitate closed communities. Permissions are a very important feature of most social networking services. They allow members and groups to control who can access their profiles, information, connections and spaces, as well as determining degrees of access. The level of granularity and control varies from service to service. Typically settings allow you to keep your information private (i.e. be seen by only those to whom you give permission) or restrict the visibility of your information to:

  1. signed-in service members only,
  2. people on your contacts list,
  3. particular groups of service users,
  4. make your information public so that even people who are not members or are not signed in as members of the service can see it.

Through these combinations of privacy settings, users can manage a range of different relationships online, as well as manage their online presence – how they appear to friends, acquaintances or the general public.

Managing relationships online and managing your online presence are key to having fun with and using social networks safely. However, the speed of the development of social networking services may mean that young people are more likely to have developed personal strategies or learnt from peers than from formal instruction and support from adults.

Social networking sites vary in the types of tools and functionality they provide, by definition social networking sites as having three common elements:

  1. A member profile (in their definition this is always a web page),
  2. The ability to add other members to a contact list,
  3. Supported interaction between members of contact lists (interaction varies greatly, and there will typically be some degree of interaction facilitated between people who are not on each other’s contacts lists).

Social networking sites are often perceived by their users as closed environments, where members talk to other members. This impression of social networking services as providing a private space is likely to account for behaviour, language and postings that do not translate well outside their intended closed context. While it is important that children and young people understand the public nature of much of their activity within social networking services (and can use permissions and privacy controls to manage personal information and communications), we also need to ensure that online activity is understood holistically – i.e. as the sum of activity of all the online sites and networks that an individual belongs to.

Issues and complaints when using a social networking site

Concerns about social networking sites can be reported to the website administrator in first instance. Look for the contact address on the site. Many sites have ‘report’ buttons or a contact centre to help address issues around safety, offensive content, hacking and scams.

Users can also seek independent legal advice about the options they may have for dealing with the material concerned.

The following general tips will help parents manage the risks of social networking for young children, older children and teenagers.

Young children

Generally young children will have little direct involvement in social networking as they will not meet the recommended age guidelines. There are some social networking sites targeted at children that claim to moderate communication to provide greater protection for children. Your child may ask to use one of these websites at some stage, and the following tips may be useful.

  1. If your child is using social networking services, including gaming sites and virtual worlds that allow them to communicate directly with other people check the age guidelines and privacy policies of the sites. Check how moderation occurs—do they administrators check all messages before they are published? Are you comfortable that your child is safe interacting on the website?
  2. Set rules—make sure your child knows what information they can share or post online and which websites they can visit. Ask them to tell you before they post any personal information online, including their full name, mum or dad’s name, their address or school.
  3. Help your child to create screen names or IDs that do not communicate their gender, age, name or location.
  4. Establish rules around the types of content or information they should report to an adult. For example, one rule may be ‘tell Mum or Dad if somebody asks you where you go to school or where you live’ and ‘tell mum and dad if anybody talks about rude things’.
  5. Advise your child to check with you before clicking on links sent by others on social networking websites. These may lead to adult content.
  6. Help your child understand that what they say and do online is important. Encourage your child to use the same manners, communicate with others in the same way and report others who aren’t being nice, just as they would in the offline world.
  7. Advise your child not to respond to any negative messages and to report any negative messages they receive to you or another trusted adult.

Older children

  1. If your child is using social networking services check the website age guidelines and terms and conditions. In general it is useful to consider whether you are comfortable with the content and the potential for contact with others including teens and adults. Is your child socially ready to manage contact from potentially ill meaning strangers?
  2. Help your child set up their profile to make sure that they don’t put too much personal information online. Help your child to create screen names or IDs that do not communicate their gender, age, name or location and are not sexually provocative.
  3. Set rules—make sure your child knows what information they can share or post online. Ask them to tell you before joining new websites and before they post any personal information online, including their full name, address or school.
  4. Advise your child not to respond to any negative messages and to report any negative messages they receive to you or another trusted adult.
  5. Establish rules around the type of contact they should report to an adult. For example, one rule may be ‘tell Mum if somebody asks you about your underwear or private parts’.
  6. Reassure your child that you will not deny them access to the internet if they report feeling uncomfortable or unsafe when online. This is a very real concern for children that may stop them from communicating with you openly.
  7. Advise your child to check with you before clicking on links sent by others on social networking websites. These may lead to adult content.
  8. Remind your child to communicate appropriately with others online, and to report any bullying of themselves or others to you or another trusted adult.
  9. Talk to your child about the use of location based services. These services enable social networking users to report their physical location to other users by ‘checking in’. Some services let people report their friends’ locations and have location based functions turned on by default. Your child can review their settings and block this function or limit who sees their location based information. Remind your child that allowing strangers to see where they are, or where their mates are, is a risky behaviour.
  10. You may also like to contact your mobile phone company for assistance with blocking internet, Bluetooth and GPS functionality on their child’s mobile phone to limit their ability to notify others of their whereabouts.
  11. Consider using filters, labels and safe zones to help manage your child’s online access.

Teenagers

  1. Talk to your teen about managing personal information on social networking websites. Encourage them not to put key personal information on their profiles. This includes their phone number, home or school addresses, information about workplaces or clubs.
  2. Remind your teen not to post photos of themselves or others that they would not want strangers to see, or that may have a negative impact on how others view them.
  3. Ensure your teen understands the privacy features—in particular how to set their profile to private and limit access to their information. Encourage teens to screen online ‘friends’.
  4. Remind your teen that not everyone is who they claim to be. Although they may enjoy having many online friends, adding people that they don’t know on ‘friends lists’ allows those people to learn all about them. This information could be used for scams or cyber stalking.
  5. Talk to your teen about the use of location based services. Services such as Foursquare and Facebook enable social networking users to report their physical location to other users by ‘checking in’. Some services let people report their friends’ locations and have location based functions turned on by default. Your teen can review their settings and block this function or limit who sees their location based information. Remind your teen that allowing strangers to see where they are, or where their mates are, is a risky behaviour.
  6. You may also like to contact your mobile phone company for assistance with blocking internet, Bluetooth and GPS functionality on their child’s mobile phone to limit their ability to notify others of their whereabouts.
  7. Encourage your teen to keep their online friends online. If they do want to meet someone that they haven’t met so far in person, they should ask a parent or another trusted adult to go with them and always meet in a public place, preferably during the day.
  8. Remind your teen not to respond if someone sends them negative messages or asks them to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable. They should tell a trusted adult and save the messages.
  9. Encourage your teen to set up a separate social networking account if they want to promote themselves or an interest and engage with like-minded people that they don’t know offline. They should ensure the site does not contain their personal information.

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