Problems With Social Networking and Teens

There are many potential problems with social networking sites and the teenagers that use them. Social networking online involves using Web sites to share information with others and connect with them by creating a profile that may include a personal Web page and a blog. Social networking sites allow users to add friends, send messages and comment on others' profile pages.

It is also one of the most popular Internet activities among teenagers. Recent research from the Pew Internet Project suggests that 93% of Americans from ages 12 to 17 use the Internet, and 55% of those teens use social networks. While most of this online interaction is just for fun, there are dangers that parents and teens

Popular Social Networking Sites
According to the Pew Internet Project, MySpace is the most dominant social network among teens, used by 85% of teenagers who use social networks. MySpace allows users almost unlimited flexibility to create and customize their profile pages, and to share their own content or that of others, including music, videos and writing. Many MySpace users register with aliases.

The next most popular social networking site among teenagers is Facebook, which is used by 7% of teens who use social networks. Facebook, once a closed system limited to school and college communities, has recently become more open. Facebook puts a greater emphasis on actually knowing the people that you connect with. Other social networks used by teenagers include Xanga, Yahoo and Bebo.

How Teens Use Social Networking Sites
Most teens create at least a basic profile, with their name, age, status, photo and interests, but many go much further. Many teens make regular visits to update their profiles and to visit others' profiles.

Communicating with others is a key aspect of using social networks. Teens may post public messages or may use bulletins or private messages to communicate with those on their friends list. Most teens use sites such as MySpace and Facebook to stay in touch with their current friends. However, PEW reports that about 50% of teenagers also use the sites to make new friends. Teenagers use the sites to make social plans with their friends, and sometimes to flirt.

Positives and Negatives
Apart from the social benefits, social networking sites can be used to document school research, promote artistic talents and experiment with other forms of content creation. They provide a way to interact with others who share the same interests and to get constructive feedback on ongoing projects.

Along with these benefits come some risks. Most social networking sites are open to all, especially MySpace, which means that your teen could be exposed to harassment, bullying or sexual advances.

Cyber-bullying and harassment are most often perpetrated by other teens and tend to happen most to older girls and to teens of either gender who have a strong online presence. It may take several forms:

  • publicizing private instant messages, text messages or e-mails
  • posting threatening messages
  • posting photos that will cause embarrassment
  • spreading rumors

It's rare for harassment to spill over into real-world conflicts, but it can still be a cause of emotional distress for teens.

A greater danger is that teens may become targets of pedophiles. The anonymity of some social networking sites makes it easy for unscrupulous people to target young teens and engage them in harmful conversations. It's easy for predators to pose as teens and lure children into harmful real-world contact as well. Most social networking sites have privacy controls in place, but teens seldom use them. Active monitoring of profiles and behaviors catches some predators, but not all of them.

Another risk is identity theft, which can occur when teens share too much information about their name, date of birth and location.

Social Networking Safety
It's up to parents to make sure their kids are safe when they use social networking. Many of the same rules that apply to online chat apply to these sites:

  • Use an alias.
  • Don't give out personal information to people you don't know. A last name and a town are enough for a predator to locate your child.
  • Don't assume that people are who they claim to be.
  • Immediately end any communication that makes you uncomfortable and report it to a parent.

For younger teens, you should investigate any sites they'd like to use. Find out what privacy protections are in place and insist that your teen uses them. For children under 16, that often means a private profile that can only be seen by approved friends.

Older teens may want a public profile to promote a band or other creative work. In this case, have your child create a second, public profile for the project while still restricting the personal profile to family and close friends. It's best to set up these profiles with a free e-mail from Yahoo or Google using an alias that can't be traced back to find personal information.

Encourage your kids to tell you if they're victims of cyber bullying or harassment. Many teens will try to deal with this on their own, which can have disastrous consequences. If your child knows who's behind the harassment, involve the other child's parents or school officials. If it's anonymous, remind your child that it's  not personal; some people just think it's fun to say mean things about others.

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