Social networking websites have replaced the social structures of yesteryear. No longer do teens gather at the local ice cream shops or shopping malls like in previous years. Now teens are coming home from school and logging on to Facebook, MySpace, Gaia online and other game and social networking websites. The age limit to start a MySpace account when it began in 2003 was 18 years or older, today it has dropped to 14, yet there is no age verification system to determine if the person creating the account is indeed 14 or older.
Social networking websites like MySpace allow the account holder the ability to personalize their profile which includes information like ones personal interests, place of employment, school activities, individual hobbies, music, books, and movies. Users can include personal photos of self, family, or friends. Social networks often allow friends or family to link to each other’s profile, so people that visit one profile can easily click onto the next person’s profile, and while your child may not be giving out personal information a peer may tell all on his or her profile. One person's information may give away another person's privacy.
The personal information our youth provides online in their profiles is truly frightening. Our children, especially our teenagers need to understand that it only takes a little bit of information to lead to the discovery of more personal information. Both teens and parents can test this theory personally by simply do a web search on Google. Enter your first and last name followed by a comma and the initials or spelling of your state and see what you pops up.
If you have a common name, like Bill Smith, then you are more anonymous on the web, and less likely to pin down personal information, however if your name is less common or more unique, like Bianca Noel Piper (a missing child), it can tell a completely different story. For fun Google yourself, your children, family, friends, neighbors and you might be surprised at what you discover.
Children tend to give out too much information, or TMI as my daughter likes to say, and while often it is intentional and other times it is because they believe they are being careful, and not putting themselves at risk. As parents, it is imperative to educate our children at an early age on what is and what is not alright to reveal on the internet. Almost no parent would consider sending their child out into the “real” world without first providing information on how to stay safe, so why is the World Wide Web any different? The internet invites and allows total strangers to access our children in the safety and sanctity of our own homes.
Would you allow a 40 year old man who knocked on your front door to walk straight into your child's bedroom without asking who he is or why he was there to see her? Of course not, yet, how many of us allow 40 year old men to enter our child’s bedroom every night without even thinking twice? Yet even the iPod touch is internet accessible from anywhere there is an unsecured or user friendly Wi-Fi (Wireless Internet) connection. So while you may believe your child cannot use their laptop or internet accessible device in your home because you have locked them out of the home internet access after certain hours they can connect by using a neighbor’s unsecured Wi-Fi connection.
Do you know who your child is talking to online? If not, then maybe it is time to sit down and check out your child’s social networking profiles and see what information he or she is providing online. Teach them that not everyone is who they say they are online and that pedophiles often are “a sheep in wolf’s clothing” and the rule is NEVER meet or call anyone from the internet without first talking to a parent.