Social Networking

Social networking has become an extremely popular activity for Internet users across the world. It initially existed as a way to create an online presence for those interested in documenting their life and connect with real and virtual friends by creating a personal “profile” page. Over the years social networking has become more complex and engrained into our culture with the most popular site www.Facebook.com morphing well beyond its simplistic beginnings. With over 1.79 billion monthly active users (as of 11/2/16), Facebook generates a great deal of advertising revenue and is constantly finding new ways to improve its user experience and to keep them engaged.

All social networking sites provide the same basic functionality with each having individual characteristics, rules and regulations. However, a new breed of social networking sites have evolved over the past few years that are more fitting for younger users. Instagram and Snapchat are more focused on sharing pictures with friends than building static profiles to serve as an online presence. These two platforms are discussed further below.

With the more traditional social networking sites like Facebook, users register and create a personal page called a profile on the site. Profiles can include pictures, personal information, opinions, music and video links, and basically anything else a person feels represents them and their personality. Users also use smart phones to post information about their current activities with pictures and comments to share with their friends.

Users 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” or “contact” status. When accepted, a link is created on each other's page to their new friend's page. Users commonly communicate through messaging or chat services provided by the site as well. They also visit each other's page to leave comments and meet each other's friends and the social networking cycle continues into one big online community of socialization. The general rule of thumb is the more friends a user has the higher status they enjoy.

Replacing the need for face-to-face interaction, social networking has become a new addiction for many who spend hours cruising through endless profiles, posting their activities and pictures, making connections with old friends or making new ones. It allows them to have a virtual presence online that can instantly share their daily activities with all their friends. Many businesses, musicians, churches, civic organizations, clubs, etc. also create Facebook pages in order to maintain connections with customers or supporters as well as disseminate information and advertise promotions or specials for free.

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 especially a concern considering the number of teenagers carelessly listing 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 don’t.

Profiles can be set to a private or secure mode which only allows accepted friends to view it. Unfortunately though, users who commonly accept all requests, regardless if they know the individual, make such settings ineffective. Bottom line, all profiles should be set to private. Parents should consider that private profiles also lock them from viewing their child’s unless they create their own and “friend” their child to gain entrance.

A new flavor for social networking can be found with sites such as www.Instagram.com and www.Snapchat.com. These sites are very much in line with younger generations that have grown accustomed to smartphones with cameras and the constant desire for taking and sharing “selfies.” These platforms allow pictures to be assembled into a storyboard, edited with some built in tools, messages attached and forwarded to contacts. Snapchat is meant to be even more flexible by quickly allowing a picture to be taken, edited, and sent to share real time events with friends. Instagram has similar functions but let’s just say it's not as quick.

Still another social networking platform called www.periscope.tv allows users to go a step further on the “instant” scale by using their smart phone camera to transmit live video and sound to users that want to watch a particular activity from the Internet.

Microblogging

Microblogging sites such as Twitter.com have also very popular. The act of microblogging allows users to post (tweet) small messages (limited to a set number of typed characters) and pictures to a simplistic online profile which is monitored by other users of the service. Just like traditional social networking, users have contacts known as followers that instantly receive all tweets they post.

Users can also place a “hashtag” in their tweet that allows it to be grouped with other similar tweets. For example all users placing the hashtag (#InternetSafetyDay) in their tweet would provide a way to search for all tweets associated with Internet safety Day. The # character at the beginning of the tag designates it as a hashtag. Hashtags are very important considering hundreds of millions of tweets are sent every day.

Many celebrities, companies, politicians, sports teams or similar entities use Twitter to post tweets about topics such as daily activities, thoughts, promotions, advertisements or other outreach initiatives. This provides the entity with a powerful medium to directly reach a targeted audience of users who have followed them. In turn, the follower feels empowered with a direct connection to a celebrity or brand.

All told, this is a very powerful communication tool. Although Twitter is the most popular, a few other microblogging providers include: tumblr.com, plurk.com, gab.ai, path.com.

Virtual Worlds

When most people think of social networking they think of MySpace.com or Facebook.com. There is also a completely different type of social network infrastructure available 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 allowing 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. Adults can become teens and vice versa. 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 virtual worlds targeted to grade school children. Weeworld.com is one of these sites allowing 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

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