Kathleen G. Kane - Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General - Protecting Pennsylvanians

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ASK THE ATTORNEY GENERAL: Are Social Networking websites safe for my child?

Our children today do not remember a time when computers and the Internet did not exist.  In recent years, much attention has been focused on the dangers of using the Internet, including privacy and security issues plus the emergence of online sexual predators. Currently, there is another threat known as online "social networking."

Pre adolescent children, teens and 20-somethings are creating new social circles by communicating online with friends, acquaintances and strangers through various social networking websites. While these types of websites are fun and exciting for many young people, parents should be aware of the potential dangers that exist when their children release personal information on the Internet.

What are social networking websites?

Social networking websites offer a place for Internet users to create a profile and communicate with others. Users can provide as much information about themselves as they want. Many young people post pictures of themselves along with a great deal of personal information in their profile.  A few examples of the many social networking websites include:

  • MySpace.com
  • Xanga.com
  • Facebook.com
  • Tagged.com
  • Bebo.com
  • MyYearbook.com
  • Classmates.com

It is through these "online hangouts" where young people can share music, talk to each other, get dates and "be seen."  When you sign-up for one of these websites your profile can be visible to anyone online. Although the websites listed above may differ in the types of services they offer, they all serve as a vehicle to reveal personal information that may not otherwise be easily obtained. 

Why would my child want to participate in a social networking website?

It is the "hip" thing to do. Many young people are now socializing online, in addition to, or rather than socializing in traditional outlets like malls, restaurants, or parks. There are many reasons why these social networking websites are so popular:

  • There is often peer pressure to fit in by creating an online profile.
  • Young people feel more comfortable and less self-conscious expressing themselves online.
  • It is easier for young people who are shy or do not have a lot of friends to interact socially online.
  • The pool of people to interact with is endless as opposed to the number of people they meet at school or within their local community. 

What concerns should I have about social networking websites?

  • Adults who might be posing as teenagers- it is easy to lie about age online.
  • Sexual predators looking to take advantage of minors who are vulnerable.
  • "Cyberbullying" - it is easier to bully someone with a keyboard than in person.
  • The posting of pictures or statements that may cause embarrassment or shame to peers,  parents, potential employers, college admissions officers, or community members.

Parents need to monitor what images their children are presenting online because anything that might be perceived as suggestive or for mature audiences may attract undesirable attention including sexual predators. 

What are some safety tips to help me protect my child?

Social networking websites are public forums with little to no expectation of privacy. Tips to help your child interact safely online include:

  • Establish rules for Internet use and post them near the computer.
  • Be involved when your child chooses his or her screen name - avoid anything suggestive or descriptive.
  • Prohibit your child from meeting face to face with anyone they come in contact with online. 
  • Never provide full name, phone number, address, school name, parents' name or any other personal information that would make it easy for a stranger to find you.
  • Do not transmit pictures of yourself or others - current technology allows for computer morphing where photographs can be imposed onto other photographs.
  • Tell your child to report anyone who appears suspicious.
  • Familiarize yourself with the privacy policy of the websites your child posts information on so you are fully aware of how that information will be handled.

How can I control access to certain websites?

Here are some important things you can do to reduce the risks to your child when using the Internet:

  • If your child is under 13, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and Rule requires social networking websites to get parental consent before they collect, maintain or use a child's personal information.
  • Keep the computer in a common area such as the den, family room or kitchen.
  • Regularly monitor your children when they are online and set time limits.
  • Install software on your computer to monitor for malicious code, spy ware, viruses, or pornography.
  • Adjust the parental controls offered by your Internet Service Provider.
  • Learn how to check the Internet history files, which keeps track of the web sites visited each day.
  • Most importantly, don't just rely on technology for oversight. Talk to your child, know how they are spending their time online and listen to what they are telling you.

To report inappropriate activity online, I urge you to contact: the Attorney General's Child Predator Unit at 1-800-385-1044 or at cpu@attorneygeneral.gov; your local police or the National CyberTipline at1-800-843-5678 or www.cybertipline.com.