Social networking has been – and still is – one of the revolutions of the online age and when used correctly is an excellent way of keeping in touch with friends and family. But it can also be a source of harm for your child (or for you and other family members, via your child). Most social networking sites set a lower age limit for membership (13 years old is commonplace), but it’s easy for children to get around it and get online at an earlier age. Encourage your child to tell you which sites they’re using, and ask them to show you how they work.
The main risks are associated with your child befriending or talking with a stranger who may be stalking them, cyberbullying from either strangers or people they already know, being scammed by downloading or linking to hoax content, and identity theft by revealing private information in profiles and posts. And though it may seem unthinkable, you child could be bullying or saying inappropriate things about somebody else, rather than being the target.
Teach your child to be very careful to befriend and communicate with only trusted people that they know. Tell them that revealing personal details such as their birth date, address, pet’s name or teacher could give someone all the information they know to harm them. Teach them not to click on links or download from sites they have linked to.
And teach them about safe use of passwords and other login details. It’s very commonplace for children’s pages to be hacked into, their profiles being changed either for fun or maliciously, or harmful comments to be posted by someone else in their name. This can also happen if they leave their computer or mobile device on and walk away from it without logging off the site.
Above all, assure them that it’s OK to come to you or another trusted adult if they feel threatened by or uncomfortable about something they have seen or done on a social networking site.
All of the above information and advice applies to instant messaging services too.
Here’s a list of social networking sites commonly used by children, and some of the specifics you need to know about them:
Facebook is the most popular social networking site on the planet. All of the advice listed under Social networking and instant messaging applies including that about potential bullying, stalking, scamming, malicious posts, identity theft and hacking. Discuss these questions with your child:
Do you know your friends?
Who can find what you post on Facebook?
Be in control of what you share online
How does your profile appear?
Do you know how to use 'Graph Search'?
How to manage ‘Hidden from timeline’ changes?
How do you use your Friends lists?
Do you know how to deactivate your account?
Twitter is a social networking site which enables its users to send and read short messages or ‘tweets’. With well over 500 million registered users around the world, it is one of the ten most visited sites, and becoming increasingly popular with young people. The main things to watch out for and advise your child about are malicious or bullying tweets, and not clicking on links that could be hoax.
On Ask.fm, anonymous users ask other users questions. This means that they can easily hide their identity and effectively, say what they like without any consequences. Bullying and abuse on the site has allegedly led to very traumatic experiences amongst youngsters, in some cases tragically taking their own lives. The site owners have said that they will include a ‘report abuse’ button, provide optional registration and employ more people as moderators.
Snapchat is a popular photo sharing app for Apple and Android mobile devices, that lets users share their photos for a few seconds before they ‘disappear’. In reality, however, anyone receiving a photo on Snapchat can keep it by taking a screen shot. The site is being heavily criticised for making it easy for children to be stalked or groomed. The age limit to join the site is 13, but many children know their way around well enough to do so much younger. Advise your child to never send photos, or open photos if they do not recognise the sender. Better still, advise them not to use it at all.
Habbo used to be called Habbo Hotel, and is a social networking site aimed at teenagers, although we know of children as young as 8 years old who use it. Again, it has been the subject of considerable concern because of pornographic messages.
Bebo used to rival Facebook in popularity, but it has declined to the point where it was recently bought back by its founder before being shut down prior to a relaunch. It became renowned for people posting inappropriate drawings – as well as the other potential issues common to social networking sites. The site says it has cleaned up its act, but we advise you to monitor it closely if your child shows any interest in the ‘new’ Bebo.
Other chat sites (such as Omegle, Chatroulette, ChatRT, Chatrandom)
There are a large (and growing) number of chat and chatroom services, connecting with other people worldwide. We strongly recommend that you don’t let your child get anywhere near these sites, as they are intended strictly for adults, and connect users with random anonymous strangers – either via forums, chatrooms or webcam chats – with no moderation. Many such sites specify a minimum age of 18, but in practice this can be easily bypassed by anyone with just a little knowledge of the internet … including children!
For comprehensive information about using social networking sites, instant messaging and chatrooms safely, click here.
These pages have been compiled with the kind assistance of Norton and Neighbourhood Watch