Family Safe Computers
Social Networking

Another popular activity for teenagers and adults is creating a personal page on one of the many social networking web sites. Many sites offer this service but the most popular are www.MySpace.com and www.Facebook.com. Each site basically provides the same experience but each has its individual characteristics along with rules and regulations. The way it works is users register and create a personal page called a profile on the site. Profiles can include pictures, personal information, opinions, online journals called blogs, music, videos and basically anything else a person feels represents them and their personality.

Users then browse other profiles looking for people with similar interests or locating people they went to school with etc. Once found, they make contact by requesting "friend status". When accepted, a link is created on each other's page to their new friend's page. Users commonly communicate through e-mail or chat services provided by the site as well. They also visit each other's page to leave messages and meet each other's friends and the social networking cycle continues into one big weblog community. The general rule of thumb is the more friends a user has the higher status they enjoy. With MySpace it displays the number of times it has been visited, which also reflects status.

Replacing the need for face-to-face interaction, social networking has become a new addiction for many who spend hours cruising through endless profiles making connections with old friends or making new ones. Many amateur musicians use this medium to reach their fans and provide music for download eliminating normal distribution costs and allowing the potential for a larger worldwide fan base.

As with anything involving the Internet there are dangers to consider with social networking. For starters, it creates a place for online predators to gather information. This is a concern especially with www.MySpace.com considering the number of teenagers who carelessly list personal information such as their full name, town, high school, and post pictures of their house or car. Some sites prevent unregistered users from viewing profiles while others like www.Facebook.com do not. The most popular site MySpace allows anyone to browse and view profiles although certain areas are restricted to unregistered users. Another area of concern with MySpace is the browse and search features allowing searches based on such criteria as body type, sexual orientation, smoker, drinker, and relationship status (i.e. Single, Married, In a Relationship, Divorced, Swinger). Some users also post risqué, nude and sexually suggestive pictures of themselves or others although MySpace has rules against it listed in the terms of use agreement. MySpace also restricts users under the age of fourteen from registering and having a profile. The method of age verification is determined by the birth date the user lists which is easily defeated. MySpace also states that anyone found to be underage might have their membership terminated and their profile removed.

In addition, www.MySpace.com has also made an attempt to crack down on predators by implementing restrictions for adults having access to underage user profiles. Although with no age verification adults can easily pose as the age group they are targeting. Many social networking web sites list safety tips for users to review and typically a safety link is available at the bottom of most webpages.

Social Networking profiles can be set to a private mode which only allows people to view it that have been accepted as a friend by the profile owner. This is default in www.Facebook.com. This prevents random users from viewing it and is a great safety feature for protection. All profiles should be set to private but keep in mind this prevents parents from viewing their child's profile as well unless they have a profile themselves and have been added as a friend.


MICROBLOGGING
Web sites such as www.Twitter.com have been quickly increasing in popularity for their microblogging ability. The act of microblogging basically allows a user to post small messages to an online profile which in turn is being monitored by other users of the service. Many celebrities are using Twitter to post "tweets" about their normal daily activities which provides fans with an insight to their life. Most tweets are done with cell phones as a user would text the information to the site which is then posted. Microblogging is not very popular with children or teens.


VIRTUAL WORLDS
When most people think of social networking they think of www.MySpace.com or www.Facebook.com. There is also a completely different type of social network infrastructure available now that has taken lessons from role playing games. Web sites such as www.secondlife.com, www.kaneva.com, and www.gaiaonline.com offer a virtual world/community that allow users to create a character of themselves known as an "avatar." Once created, they roam through this online world and interact with other avatars. The avatars represent other people sitting at their computers doing the same thing. Avatars allow people to be whomever they want. Men can become women and vice versa. Older adults can build their avatar to be 16 years old. Basically in a virtual world anything goes and no one can prove otherwise.

This is very dangerous because when children and teens are involved in this type of virtual reality world they are literally blind to who they are dealing with. They are mixed into a virtual world interacting with adults and potentially some predators. There are also several adult areas in Second Life including "rape rooms."

There are also virtual worlds targeted to grade school children. Www.weeworld.com is one of those sites that allow very young children to make avatars referred to as a "wee mee." They use their avatar to play with other kids in the virtual world. A potential for danger is very prevalent in this world as well. Similar sites such as www.whyville.net and www.clubpenguin.com offer a safer environment.


SOCIAL NETWORKING DANGERS
Adults use the site
Inappropriate language, nudity, alcohol use, sexually provocative images, etc.
Predators use it to gather information
No real method of age verification
Some Social Networking services allow people to view profiles without logging on; therefore teenagers and young children can access it easily


SOCIAL NETWORKING DO'S AND DON'TS
Set profile to private
Read safety tips on all SN web sites
Ask teenager to show you their profile (all of them)
Discuss online privacy
No addresses, phone numbers, other identifiable information (license plate)
Once posted online it is there to stay
No Web Cam

Internet Safety Day
Social Networking