This month, I have been posting a series of essays about how parents can deal with potentially objectionable online content or contacts to coincide with “National Internet Safety Month.” (Here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7). In this series, I have been talking about how parents need to adopt a “layered” approach to online child protection that involves many tools and strategies. And such an approach is certainly needed to address social networking activities.
Social networking websites have become wildly popular with teenagers in recent years. Sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, Bebo, Hi5, Friendster, Tagged, Imbee, LiveJournal, Yahoo! 360, and Windows Live Spaces attract millions of users and represent just a few of the hundreds of social networking sites online today. These sites offer their users the space and tools to build the equivalent of an online journal and then to network with others more easily. New sites are seemingly surfacing every week, and they are growing more personalized in an attempt to appeal to specific niches.
But concerns about how youngsters use these services quickly prompted lawmakers to introduce legislation to ban access to such sites in schools and libraries. Others, including several state attorneys general, want such sites to age-verify all users to exclude those over or under a certain age. (I have discussed my reservations with proposals to impose age verification schemes on social networking websites in my PFF white paper, “Social Networking and Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions.”)
What parents need to understand about social networking websites is that, unlike other “professional” websites, social networking sites feature a great deal of “amateur” user-generated content. This makes it more difficult for filters or other parental control tools to screen out potentially undesirable material. Luckily, most mainstream social networking sites take steps to pre-screen many of the images that are uploaded to their sites and block objectionable material. But it will be impossible for these website operators to control everything that is said or posted on these sites in light of the sheer volume of material and human communication taking place.
Thus, parents will need to consider additional solutions. Monitoring software could certainly be part of the answer. Many monitoring tools, discussed in Part 2 of this series, give parents a clear idea of how much time their kids spend online, the specific sites they are visiting, and with whom they are conversing. MySpace.com recently announced that it would soon make sophisticated monitoring software available to parents that will allow them to keep better tabs on their kids’ online interactions. The software, dubbed Zephyr, will let parents see the name, age, and location that children are listing on their MySpace accounts. It will update parents if their children change that information for any reason. For privacy reasons, however, the software will not let parents read their child’s personal e-mail. Parents can also tap tools such as IM Safer, which was described earlier, to monitor potentially inappropriate release of information by their children.
Parents of pre-teens should be careful about letting them go on social networking sites unattended. But there are some smaller social networking sites such as ZoeysRoom.com, Imbee.com, ClubPenguin.com, and Tweenland.com that have extremely strict enlistment policies, primarily because they target or allow younger users. These sites are discussed in more detail in the section on age verification in Part V.
Additional tips for parents about social networking sites can be found in a very accessible booklet, MySpace Unraveled: A Parent’s Guide to Teen Social Networking, by Larry Magid and Anne Collier. Also, the Federal Trade Commission’s OnGuardOnline.gov website offers “Social Networking Safety Tips for Tweens and Teens” as well as “A Parent’s Guide” to social networking sites. And the Federal Bureau of Investigation offers “A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety” on its website offering similar advice. MySpace.com also offers safety tips for kids and parents on its site.
Finally, as will be outlined in the last essay in this series, parents should discuss proper online etiquette with their children before they allow them to get online or visit social networking sites. In particular, kids need to be encouraged to follow some other sensible rules while using the Internet and other interactive technologies:
* Treat others you meet online with the same respect that you would accord them in person;
* Do not cyber-bully or harass your peers;
* Do not post negative comments about your teachers or principals online;
* Do not post or share inappropriate pictures of yourself or others;
* Avoid talking to strangers online;
* Avoid using lewd or obscene language online or in communications;
* Do not share your personal information with unknown parties; and,
* Talk to parents and educators about serious online concerns and report dangerous situations or harassing communications to them.
[Part 9 of this series will discuss online child safety and law enforcement efforts.]