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Staying Safe at Social-networking Websites

Reviewed May 15, 2012

Summary

  • Assume that everything you post is public—and will never go away.
  • Privacy settings can help. When in doubt, choose the strictest level.
  • Groups are a good way to choose who gets to know what about you.

Innovators on the Internet are constantly coming up with new ways for friends, family and strangers to communicate. But from e-mail to chat rooms to blogs to Facebook, the risks never change. The Internet is a public place, and not everyone out there is on your side.

The rise of social-networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook has brought new twists to old safety issues. Social networking enables users to post personal information, pictures and opinions to wide audiences. Some of the “friends” who see your posts may be people you know and trust. Others with that label may be only friends of those friends, or even total strangers.

The ’net doesn’t forget

It’s easy to forget how easy it is to get in trouble—if not now, then later.

Maybe years later. One fact about the Internet is that nothing ever truly goes away. Parents must constantly remind their children (and themselves) of this fact. Young teens can post embarrassing pictures or offensive remarks and forget about them, until they’re spotted by a college admissions department or a prospective employer.

Teens are mistaken when they say nobody cares about what they post, says Symantec Corp. safety advocate Marian Merritt. “The majority of university admission programs are looking at social networks; the majority of job interviewers are looking at social networks,” she says. Removing text or pictures from your social-network page does not guarantee that no one will see them. They could easily have been downloaded by others in the short time they were on the Web.

Don’t hand out “puzzle pieces”

Parents and children also need to be careful not to give criminals an opening by posting too much personal information. The Internet’s lack of direct personal contact heightens this risk, says Julie Bruns. Bruns is a prosecutor who runs the juvenile division in the office of Montgomery County (Ohio) Prosecutor Mathias H. Heck Jr. “Where you don’t have to talk to someone face to face, it’s a lot easier to give up information,” says Bruns. “We lower our defenses … there’s a computer we’re looking at—what’s the harm?”

People picking up that information can do plenty of harm, and they don’t need that much data. Bruns says people often “don’t understand how little tidbits of information that they put on the Internet are like puzzle pieces to predators.”

Bruns, Merritt and other experts offer tips to help parents and their children navigate social networking safely:

  • Keep private information offline. Parents should explain to preteens and teens why certain data about themselves, their family and their friends should not be posted. This includes full names, Social Security numbers, street addresses, phone numbers and financial information. Screen names should shield personal information that you don’t want strangers to know, such as a child’s age, full name and hometown. Adults and kids should not post messages that announce travel plans or indicate where children go to school.
  • Make the most of privacy settings. If you’re not comfortable with the access that people have to your information on a social-networking site, find a more restrictive site. And don’t settle for the default settings, which can be too loose, especially for youngsters. Merritt notes that a setting under which your photos are shared with all “friends” can put your face in front of hundreds of people you barely know. When it comes to choosing privacy settings, she says, “People should look at the choices available to them, and when in doubt, be restrictive.”
  • Seek safety in groups. Signify different groups that get different types of information. Family members, for instance, could get access to information that would be off-limits to co-workers or classmates.
  • Parents should be friends, too. Parents should make sure that their children give them full “friend” status on sites such as Facebook, says psychologist Susan Bartell. This gives them access to the same network of sites and information that their kids are seeing.
  • Don’t hover, but do monitor. Parents should take their “friend” role seriously, paying attention to profiles and other data posted by and about their children. They can get help from services such as Symantec’s OnlineFamily.Norton (at www.onlinefamily.norton.com). This site enables parents to see which social-networking sites their kids are visiting. But, says Merritt, “You should also show a little restraint. I know parents who comment on everything their children post. This can drive them underground. You’re monitoring, but not hovering.”
  • Keep it clean, keep it positive. Bullying, posting of revealing photos, spreading of malicious gossip and sex talk are always out of line. Children should be told from the start of their social networking “only to publicize positive things about themselves and other people,” says Bartell. They need to understand clearly that what looks like harmless fun now can kill a chance for admission to a college or a job later. Kids should know all the different forms that bullying can take. This includes spreading rumors or posting private messages without the senders’ approval.

Parents should tell their children to trust their instincts—and tell parents—if they see something online that makes them feel threatened or uncomfortable.

Resources

The Federal Trade Commission
http://onguardonline.gov/articles/0012-kids-and-socializing-online (for parents) http://onguardonline.gov/features/feature-0001-featured-info-kids (for kids)

Marian Merritt’s “Ask Marian” blog
Symantec
http://community.norton.com/t5/Ask-Marian/bg-p/askmarian

By Tom Gray
Source: Julie Bruns, assistant prosecuting attorney and head of juvenile division, Montgomery County ProsecutorÂ’s Office, Dayton, Ohio; Susan Bartell, PsyD, www.drsusanbartell.com; Marian Merritt, Norton Internet safety advocate, Symantec Corp.; U.S. Federal Trade Commission

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