When it comes to technology, kids often are way ahead of adults. But kids, even teens, still need guidance regarding safe use of new technology. Social networking sites are one of the newest ways to interact online. According to comScore Media Metrix data, the three most popular social networking sites are MySpace.com, Facebook.com, and Xanga.com. While they provide ways to keep in touch with friends, they can also be risky if users aren’t cautious about the information they post online. The Federal Trade Commission is offering an explanation of social networking sites, and guidance for both parents and their kids about how to safely use them.
Social networking sites encourage information sharing and allow people to make new friends, exchange information, and communicate through personalized Web pages, blogs, chat rooms, e-mail, or instant messaging. The sites take the idea of “friends of friends” to a new level and allow today’s tweens, teens, and 20-somethings to turn strangers into new circles of friends, or at least keep in touch with people they have met in the “real world.” But social networking sites also can increase exposure to people who have less-than-friendly intentions, including sexual predators.
The FTC is offering tips about staying safe on social networking sites, for both kids and parents, in “Social Networking Sites: Safety Tips for Tweens and Teens,” available at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/tech/tec13.htm, and in “Social Networking Sites: A Parent’s Guide,” available at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/tech/tec14.htm. The FTC is working with the National Cyber Security Alliance, Internet Education Foundation, the National Crime Prevention Council, and other non-governmental organizations to get the message out. In addition, the FTC is posting the tips as part of a new section of OnGuard Online, at www.OnGuardOnline.gov/socialnetworking. OnGuardOnline.gov also includes information on social networking sites from the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team and the Department of Homeland Security.
Tips for parents and kids include:
- 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 full name, Social Security number, address, phone number, and bank and credit card account numbers to yourself.
- Be cautious about posting other information, including the name of your school, sports team, clubs, where you work or hang out, or any other information that could be used to identify you or locate you offline.
- 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 appreciate. If you post one, ask yourself whether it’s one your mom would display in the living room.
For parents in particular:
- In some circumstances, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and Rule require social networking sites to get parental consent before they collect, maintain, or use personal information from children under age 13.
- Keep the computer in an open area, such as the kitchen or family room, so you can keep an eye on where your kids are going online and what they’re doing.
- Use the Internet with your kids. Be open to learning about the technology so you can keep up with them.
- If you’re concerned that your child is engaging in risky online behavior, you can search the blog sites they visit to see what information they’re posting. Try searching by their name, nickname, school, hobbies, grade, or area where you live.
- Check privacy policies. Some sites may share information like your email address with other companies, which could generate spam and even spyware.
Tips especially for kids include:
- 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 your Internet service provider. You could end up preventing someone else from becoming a victim.
Copies of the guide for parents and tips for tweens and teens are available from the FTC’s website at http://www.ftc.gov and www.OnGuardOnline.gov. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish (bilingual counselors are available to take complaints), or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/complaint.htm. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to thousands of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.