by Stacey Schifferdecker
Social networking sites are the newest and hottest thing on the internet, and even if you’ve never heard of them, chances are your tween or teen has. MySpace and Facebook are the most popular sites, but Wikipedia actually lists over 100 social networking sites catering to all types of interests.
Social networking sites are intended to give teens and adults a chance to meet new people who share their interests. Basically, they work like this:
1. You join the site and create an online profile.
2. You invite your friends to join and link your profiles as part of a “network.”
3. You join “communities” on the site based on your interests, and you meet more people to add to your network.
Your network grows quickly because people in your friends’ networks automatically become part of your network too.
Sounds good — so why should parents be concerned about social networking sites? Well, consider that at least seven non-violent sexual assaults on minors have been traced to social networking sites. Yes, social networking sites are definitely something for parents to be concerned about. What can you do to keep your kids safe on these sites?
The first thing you should do is keep your tweens and younger teens off these sites. Most sites require users be at least 14 years of age, but many users lie about their ages. Don’t allow your children to set up a site until they are old enough. On most social networking sites, you can search for profiles by name or email address, so you might want to check once in a while to see if your child has set up a site. If you do find they have set up a site, you can have it deleted.
Once your child is old enough and wants to create an online profile, visit a few sites to check out their safety policies and see which site you are most comfortable with. Remember that these sites are largely uncensored. On MySpace, for example, only hate speech and extreme nudity are censored.
Next, you should talk with your children to make sure they are responsible enough in your eyes to handle a social networking site. This means they
- Agree to follow basic internet safety rules, such as not revealing their name, address, and phone number and never meeting anyone in person they have met online.
- Agree to let you see their site anytime you request. If they protest that you are invading their privacy, remind them that this is a public site. You aren’t invading their privacy if everyone with internet access can see their site.
- Understand that people online are not necessarily who they say they are.
- Understand their sites are public and they should never post anything they don’t want everyone from their grandmother to their school principal, college recruiter, and future boss to see.
- Keep their sites private and password-protected so only allowed friends can see it. (On most networking sites, profiles for minors are automatically kept private, but users can still send them email.)
Once your kids have set up their sites, visit it regularly to make sure they are behaving safely. You should also check your children’s friends’ sites—to make sure they aren’t accidentally revealing any personal or inappropriate information about your child. If they aren’t following the rules—pull their site.
Stacey Schifferdecker is the happy but harried mother of three school-aged children—two boys and a girl. She is also a freelance writer, a Children’s Minister, a PTA volunteer, and a Scout leader. Stacey has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and French and a Master’s degree in English. She has written extensively about parenting and education as well as business, technology, travel, and hobbies.
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