“Sharing is caring!” “Hugs not drugs!” “Stop, drop, and roll!” – these are just some of the educational catchphrases that are drummed into our kids’ brains growing up, and now that 93% of teens are online, warnings on Internet privacy are joining the mantra.
To some extent, telling kids to beware of online “stranger danger” has worked: according to a Pew Internet study, “most teenagers are taking steps online to protect themselves from the most obvious areas of risk.” However, the key phrase here should be “the most obvious areas.” Facebook and other social networks push their users to share as much information as possible with little warning of the consequences. While most social networks have access controls designed to keep your children’s information private to only their friends, these features do not form a reliable privacy wall. These built-in restrictions can’t be counted on to hold outsiders and predators at bay.
Consider the following: 88% of adolescents share their birthdays, 64.1% share their emails, 54.2% share their hometowns, 41% share their mobile phone numbers, and 27% share their addresses. On Facebook, the default settings for status updates and posts are public, which means anything your child posts can be seen by the world and saved on sites like youropenbook.org. Even with the most diligent security settings, in most cases* once your child accepts someone as a friend he or she removes any privacy wall that existed. This is especially risky if your kids are friends with people they don’t actually know offline.
So, just don’t put your phone number or address on your profile – seems simple, right? Wrong. As mentioned above, it is the less obvious security gaps that pose the greatest risk. Research has shown that while adolescents understand not to share information on their own profiles, they often divulge personal information when commenting on other’s Facebook pages. Sometimes just your child’s username and picture is all a stranger needs to find out more sensitive info, especially if your child’s email address matches his or her name. It’s always a good idea to Google your family’s email addresses every few months and find out if it has been saved anywhere.
When faced with all these concerns, the most obvious answer might be to stay off social networking sites all together. But with all the positive experiences that social networking provides, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Research shows that the benefits of social networking include a decrease in “feelings of loneliness,” and as most social network users know, it’s just plain fun!
Like many things in life, awareness and education are the keys to having a positive social networking experience. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the security gaps in today’s social networking sites and talk with your family about “best practices” for online privacy, and/or sign up for a free trial of an online social monitoring solution like FamilySignal. By going a step beyond the “obvious” threats and solutions, you can enjoy the benefits of being online while minimizing the dangers.
1 Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zikuhr (2010). Social Media & Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults. http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Social-Media-and-Young-Adults.aspx, accessed on March 26, 2011.
2 Lenhart, Amanda and Mary Madden (2007). How Teens Manage Their Online Identities and Personal Information in the Age of MySpace. http://www.pewtrusts.org/our_work_report_detail.aspx?id=21184 accessed on August 5, 2011
3,4 Moira Burke, Cameron Marlow, & Thomas Lento (2010). Social network activity and social well-being. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1753326.1753613, accessed on March 22, 2011.