The Internet is a powerful tool that has revolutionized virtually every aspect of our lives, including how we socialize. Today, there are an estimated 200 online social networking sites, the most popular being MySpace and Facebook. But while it can be fun and convenient to keep up with old friends and make new ones online, sharing too much personal information on these sites can be risky. This is especially true for young people, who may not realize that the information they post online could end up in the hands of harassers, cyberbullies, scam artists, child predators and other unscrupulous people.
Consider these recent examples:
1. In Connecticut, police arrest a 21-year-old man suspected of raping a 14-year-old girl he found on MySpace.
2. In California, 20 middle school students are suspended because of a posting on MySpace in which one student allegedly makes anti-Semitic remarks and threatens to kill another student
3. In New York, investigators say a man finds the work address of a 16-year-old girl on a social networking site, lures her to a parking lot and sexually assaults her.
4. In Texas, an adult MySpace user lures a 15-year-old girl to a meeting where he drugs and sexually assaults her. The culprit eventually pleads guilty to sexual assault and is now doing 10 years in prison.
These examples are particularly disturbing considering a recent survey that found that 55 percent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 use online social networking sites. And while many sites prohibit young children from registering, the rules are impractical to enforce – so much so that even a federal court agrees. When MySpace was sued for $30 million for not having measures to protect the children who use the site, a federal judge threw it out, reasoning that MySpace is protected under the Communications Decency Act and can’t be expected to verify the age of every user because it would “stop MySpace’s business in its tracks.”
So, is the solution for young people to forgo social networking sites altogether and pass up the opportunity to expand their horizons and widen their circles of friends? The answer is no, provided they follow some common sense safety tips.
The tips below are reprinted from OnGuardOnline.gov, a partnership between the federal government and the technology industry to provide information on how consumers can protect themselves against Internet fraud, secure their computers and protect their personal information. The site is maintained by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
*Think about how different sites work before deciding to join a site. Some sites will allow only a defined community of users to access posted content; others allow anyone and everyone to view postings.
* Think about keeping some control over the information you post. Consider restricting access to your page to a select group of people, for example, your friends from school, your club, your team, your community groups, or your family.
* Keep your information to yourself. Don’t post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number, or bank and credit card account numbers — and don’t post other people’s information, either.
* Be cautious about posting information that could be used to identify you or locate you offline. This could include the name of your school, sports team, clubs, and where you work or hang out.
* Make sure your screen name doesn’t say too much about you. Don’t use your name, your age, or your hometown. Even if you think your screen name makes you anonymous, it doesn’t take a genius to combine clues to figure out who you are and where you can be found.
* Post only information that you are comfortable with others seeing – and knowing – about you. Many people can see your page, including your parents, your teachers, the police, the college you might want to apply to next year, or the job you might want to apply for in five years.
* Remember that once you post information online, you can’t take it back. Even if you delete the information from a site, older versions exist on other people’s computers.
* Consider not posting your photo. It can be altered and broadcast in ways you may not be happy about. If you do post one, ask yourself whether it’s one your mom would display in the living room.
* Flirting with strangers online could have serious consequences. Because some people lie about who they really are, you never really know who you’re dealing with.
* Be wary if a new online friend wants to meet you in person. Before you decide to meet someone, do your research: Ask whether any of your friends know the person, and see what background you can dig up through online search engines. If you decide to meet them, be smart about it: Meet in a public place, during the day, with friends you trust. Tell an adult or a responsible sibling where you’re going, and when you expect to be back.
* Trust your gut if you have suspicions. If you feel threatened by someone or uncomfortable because of something online, tell an adult you trust and report it to the police and the social networking site. You could end up preventing someone else from becoming a victim.