Social networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo, and MySpace are often an area of teenage life that, for many parents and teachers, is a complete mystery. Social networks are places that teenagers can swap ideas, gossip, and exchange photographs away from the prying eyes of their parents.
It’s not hard to understand why this is so popular with teenagers. These sites can be fantastic environments for kids. They can express themselves, talk about their music tastes, what’s bothering them, and simply communicate with each other. There is a downside, however – the potential dangers and risks involved.
One of the dangers is that these sites can be grounds for sexual predators. According to police sources, more than 50,000 sexual predators are thought to be online at any one time. If children are not careful, they could be putting themselves in harm’s way. In New Jersey, a mother is grieving the murder of her daughter, Judy. The 14-year-old reportedly told friends that she met a man in his 20’s through MySpace.com. Judy arranged to meet the man and was killed.
You may say, “Not my kid!” But are you sure? And how would you know? It is estimated that over 60 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have personal pages on social networking sites. Of these, 46 percent claim to have given out personal information. A third of them have received unwanted sexual or offensive comments.
Here are some steps to help you:
- Encourage your child to use a chat room that requires registration the first time you visit. These are more likely to have moderators. Moderators are people who keep an eye on what is going on and have the ability to exclude people who are breaking the rules.
- Explain that even after they have registered, they should never give out their email address or phone number to somebody they don’t know.
- Warn your teenager to be aware of somebody who wants to get too close too soon – perhaps someone asking for personal details (such as an address or phone number).
- Sending photos is fine – to people your child actually knows. But remind them that they should never send their photograph to somebody who is just an “Internet Friend.”
- Remind your child that they should only meet face-to-face with somebody they have met online if they have an adult they trust present. Then only in a public place.
- Remember, even though most teenagers would prefer to have a computer in their bedroom with Internet access, this may not be wise.
The dangers of social networking sites are real, some are worse than others. Kids can still enjoy the great advantages of social networking if they use caution. To keep children (and teenagers) safe, parents need to become more familiar with how their children are using the Internet.
(By Rachel Jordan, School Resource Officer, Carl Ben Eielson Middle School)