In the past five years, social networking websites have become increasingly popular among Internet users, especially young teens, as a place where they can meet other people, communicate, and exchange information. 73% of wired American teens now use social networking websites, a significant increase from previous surveys. Just over half of online teens (55%) used social networking sites in November 2006 and 65% did so in February 2008. With their increased popularity, these sites have also become a "virtual playground" for criminals and potential child predators and for bullies who may hide behind a veil of anonymity to communicate with and prey upon potential victims.

Social networking sites typically allow users to create an online profile and establish a personal network to friends, family members, or other users of the site. Any computer with Internet access - and this includes just about any cellphone - can be used to join a social networking site. Some sites require only that the registrant provide an email address and often there is no system in place to verify the validity of any of the information that a registrant provides during the registration process - including even the required email address. Most sites have terms of use meant to curb improper conduct, but enforcement of these terms of use is often limited and relies on self-reporting by other users to report violations.

Once a registrant becomes a member, he or she can post personal information, images or other content depending upon the features available at the site. Unless the site offers privacy settings for the disclosure of certain information and the user affirmatively chooses to activate these settings, all the information the user posts on the site may be visible to all other users of the site.

Popular Social Networking Sites

The main types of social networking services are those which are interest-based (e.g., hobbies, political groups, or support groups), those that contain directories of some categories (such as former classmates), and those that offer a means to connect with friends (usually with self-description pages). While there are many forms of social networking sites, some of the more popular social networking sites involve those that offer the opportunity to connect with or make new friends. In an ever changing social networking universe, we have seen the rise Facebook, which now has 500,000,000 users, and Twitter with new platforms being developed every day.

Potential Risks

While social networking has created powerful new ways to communicate, share information, and meet new people, there are potential risks associated with the use or misuse of social networking sites that may affect unsuspecting users unless they take appropriate precautions and exercise reasonable care when using the sites. For example:

  • Internet sexual predators and known sex offenders have used social networking sites to locate and communicate with potential victims.
  • Criminals may steal the identities of users who post personal information.
  • Individuals may create false profiles in order to remain anonymous in their communications. Because many social networking sites do not employ an age or identity verification system to ensure that a user who registers as a member is a certain age, an adult can register as a minor member and use that profile to seek access to the profiles of countless underage members.
  • Individuals may post derogatory, hurtful, or threatening information about others.
  • Stalkers can use personal information posted to the sites to locate and pursue victims.
  • Criminals who wish to defraud others of money or property can locate victims, gain their trust, and then take advantage of that trust for criminal purposes.
  • Some users post sexually explicit or violent content that is inappropriate for young computer users.

Take Precautions

Learn about how different sites work before deciding to join a site. Some sites will allow only users you authorize to access posted content about you; while others will allow everyone to view your postings. Take advantage of the privacy settings that may be offered by a particular social networking site to limit access to those who can access and/or comment about your content. If you are using a site that doesn't offer privacy settings, find another site.
Guard your personal information. Never provide or post you're your full name, date of birth, Social Security number, address, phone number, bank account or credit card numbers, or other personal information that could be used by criminals. Only post information that you are comfortable having others see and know about you. Your postings are like a newspaper where many people can see your profile, including your family members and employers. Users do not always realize that images or messages they post online can create a lasting reputation - good or bad - that may be attributable to them for years to come.

Protect Kids and Teens

The most recent data, released by the Pew Research Center and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, reported that 20% of teens (ages 13-19) and 33% of young adults (ages 20-26) have "sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves." While teens and young adults generally send these images to a specific intended recipient - usually a boyfriend or girlfriend - about one in ten say that they have sent images to people they do not know and 61% report that they have experienced pressure to send these images. Strongly discourage your children from posting personal images, including photographs of themselves, their friends, of their family, or the names of their schools, the names of their teams, their grade levels or calendar of upcoming events or any information that may disclosure their future whereabouts.

Explain to your children that the Internet is public and that anyone may gain access to information that he or she posts on it. Remind your child that visitors to social networking sites may disguise their identity and may not be who they appear to be.

View any page your child has set up on a social networking site to make certain that its content does not compromise your child's safety or the safety of others. Put the computer in a family area of the household and do not permit private use.

Report all inappropriate non-criminal behavior to the site through the site's reporting procedures. If your child receives sexually explicit materials or communications over the Internet, you should report it to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) CyberTipline or calling 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).

Texting and Sexting

For most teens, a cell phone is no longer a device for verbal communication. Instead they are used as mini-computers, a source to provide a constant stream of information. Talking itself, has been replaced been texting, allowing users to remain in constant contact with friends and colleagues. Like much of what is put on the internet, once out there, a text message is no longer the user's to control. Studies are finding that educating your teens and yourself about text messaging can potentially save a lot embarrassment and a lot of money. For example:

  • It is easy to say something in texting that you would not have the courage to say to a person's face. Sometimes,this means that it's better left unsaid.
  • A text message is not necessarily a private conversation between two people, but between you and everyone that other person chooses to forward it to.
  • Depending on your plan, text messaging can be expensive. Each text message can add an additional charge on your monthly bill.

As cell phone technology has evolved, users are now able to use their phones as music players, storage devices and cameras. The presence of both digital still and video cameras on cell phones is both a positive and negative. They allow you to capture those unexpected cannot miss moments, and easily share them with family and friends. However, given the size and ambiguity of cell phones they also provide an opportunity for strangers to capture you in less than flattering situations. However, cell phone cameras in the hands of strangers should not be the only cause for concern.

Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photographs, primarily between mobile phones and is a growing trend among younger users. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy 20 % of teens have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves. 48% of teens say they have received such messages. In many cases, what is intended as a two way communication is shared amongst friends and classmates. 36 Percent of teen girls and 39 % of teen boys say it is common for nude or semi-nude photos to get shared with people other than the intended recipient.Sexting can not only lead to embarrassment and shame for the original sender, but can also lead to criminal charges with, both the original sender and the mass distributor being charged with the distribution of child pornography.