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Sun 9 Mar 2008 04:00 AM

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Social networking websites are great fun and a valuable communication tool, but with all that functionality come some dangers too. Matt Wade explains how to keep your kids safe from harm.

Social networking websites are great fun and a valuable communication tool, but with all that functionality come some dangers too. Matt Wade explains how to keep your kids safe from harm.

In today's online world, where Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, Hi5 and Friendster have been designed to appeal to tech-savvy youngsters, the kids of 2008 are presented with an interesting mix of 'virtual' social situations, the likes of which their parents never experienced.

Of course with any evolution there are benefits and drawbacks. The main 'pro' of such sites is pretty obvious; almost instant communication with friends and family, wherever they are around the world.

Arguably the biggest 'con' is that many children's parents aren't even aware of the dangers. And this is a worry.

Put simply, a blind parental acceptance of the fact that 'my kids know more than I do' simply won't wash in 2008, as without your knowledge and guidance, your offspring might genuinely find themselves at risk of one kind or another.

Whilst it's easy to lurch into hyperbole and risk putting the frighteners on any mum or dad with stories of abductions primed over the net and digital stalkers, the truth is that such problems are - according to the reports publicly available at present - few and far between, and in many cases no more likely online than off.

But since you've presumably warned sons and daughters not to talk to strangers on the street, it's also down to you to proffer advice regarding their online antics.

Today's mums and dads need an understanding of not only the websites in question and how they work, but a grasp of these sites' potential weaknesses and the ways in which those using them can be led into giving away personal information and encouraged into inappropriate and potentially risky relationships with strangers.

First then, let's examine the three hottest networking sites of the moment, including what ages of users they're aimed at and how their 'social mechanisms' work.

Worrying examplesWhen social networking ruins a life...


A Texan driver whose car was involved in a fatal road accident found his MySpace postings - including the line "I'm a drunkaholic" - being used by the prosecution.


Kevin Colvin, of Anglo Irish Bank, was fired for telling employers he had a family emergency to attend to, when his Facebook page instead proved he'd been cavorting at a Halloween party.

Nineteen UK police officers were investigated recently over the comments they made on their Facebook pages.

According to a Viadeo survey, 62% of British employers now check the Facebook, MySpace or Bebo pages of some applicants. Their concerns apparently include "excess alcohol abuse" and "job disrespect".


Students at Oxford University were disciplined after staff found pictures of them on Facebook getting crazy with shaving foam and flour.

A don at Cambridge University has admitted to scanning applicants' social networking pages.



Billed as a "next-generation social networking service", Bebo allows members to stay in touch with their college friends, connect with friends, share photos, discover new interests "and just hang out".

Of the three sites here, Bebo is arguably the one that appeals most to early teens due to its youthful look and feel.

How it works

• Users must be 13 years or older.

• All that's needed for a child to join Bebo is a valid e-mail address.

• Users first register, then create a Profile page (these are private by default but can be made public - in other words readable by any Bebo surfer).

• Users can then upload photos and videos, exchange message with friends (under the section named Sayings), write blogs, add and manage their friend list, and set-up Mini Events (which can be shared with selected friends).

• Real-world friends can be invited to join Bebo by e-mail.

• Online bullying and the posting of inappropriate text and photos is not allowed by the site.

• On the Profile page of each Bebo member, there is a Report Abuse link.


How best to describe this digital phenomenon?

The site's creators put it like this: "Facebook is a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them."

"People use Facebook to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet."

Of course they forget to add that you can also throw virtual animals at your friends, give them vampire bites, and flirt with them in a million of ways - some cheeky, some more risqué - using the myriad of third-party apps available.

With more than 150,000 new users signing up daily, Facebook is thought to be growing three times as fast as rival MySpace.

How it works

• Users must be at least 13 years old.

• All that's needed for a child to join Facebook is a valid e-mail address.

• After registering, users create a Profile page, which can be viewed by approved friends, featuring personal information such as likes, dislikes etc.

• Users can join regional ‘networks' to connect with the people in their geographical area.

(Facebook is made up of many such networks - groups of users - based around companies, schools etc.)

• Real-world friends can be invited to join Facebook by e-mail.

• Potential online friends can be contacted by ‘poking' others, or by requesting to add them to your Friends list.

• Once added as a bona fide friend, other users can view your Profile page.

A configurable 'Limited Profile' can also be applied for less close friends.


Predominantly used by teens and young adults, this site allows you to create a community of your own, and share photos, journals and interests with a network of mutual friends.

Traditionally, although still arguably, more multimedia-friendly than Facebook, MySpace is home to many amateur bands, who can upload several tracks onto their web pages.

MySpace also allows single people to meet other singles, families to keep in touch, and work- and classmates to interact.

How it works

• Users must be 13 or older to register.

• All that's needed for a child to join Facebook is a valid e-mail address.

• Your Profile is your ‘space on the web' - where you can describe yourself, hobbies and interests.

You can also upload pics, tunes and write journals.

• Users can invite their friends to join their personal network.

• Users can also view the connections between their friends and their friends' friends (some users have thousands of people in their extended networks).

• Users can suggest to each other friendship or romantic matches.

• The site's Privacy settings are editable; users can set who can view their profile say, and block troublesome users.
Areas of vulnerability

Put most generally, social networking sites have the potential to be a dangerous in two ways: from a privacy/ID-theft point of view, and in terms of these sites facilitating abuse by strangers.

On the privacy front, what seems obvious from observing the behaviour of some users here in this region - as well as online reports from other overseas countries - is that net users often giveaway personal information (including, but not limited to, their current location, school, date of birth, home town, even their phone number) to their online 'friends', which they wouldn't necessarily give to such a wide group of contacts in the real world.

Obviously, this can lead to a user being pestered by 'acquaintances'. At the more worrying end of the spectrum however, potential stalkers and sexual predators also get a look-in.

Meanwhile data-safety-wise, such information is all - and sometimes more - than an unscrupulous hacker needs to scour the net for additional ID data and forge an identity based on that of a site user.

According to a study conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research on behalf of online authentication provider TriCipher, 26 million adults have been victims of identity theft or fraud in their lives, and the internet is certainly one of fastest-growing methods of harvesting such information, particularly from youngsters.

As for the fraud itself, this can refer to anything from a data thief applying for a credit card or phone account under another user's name, to them setting up a MySpace or Facebook user profile to defame another individual.

Common problems

On this latter point, a quick Windows survey of the numerous forum posts on Connect Safely ( - a site dedicated to promoting safe net use and supported by most of the social networking giants - found that many of the problems users reported were to do with ex-friends or other problem acquaintances setting up fake profiles under their names, with the intent of 'flaming' them to their real friends, sullying their reputations.

Whilst those behind Connect Safely are able to raise these problems to, say, the MySpace support team direct, they offer no guarantee of being able to solve such issues.

(In addition, from an adult's point of view, the story of a teacher's reputation being questioned by a fake profile poster is also a very strong example of how such websites can be abused. Learn more via the thread found at here.

A parent's approach

In terms of how to go about starting a conversation with your child on such matters, and subsequently advising them how to stay safe, first you must know your stuff.
Try creating a user account of your own on the sites above. Play around, add some friends (though not your kids as they'll be highly embarrassed), and read what other users are writing and using these sites for.

A good starting point thereafter is to do as MySpace's team advises and, "Talk to your kids about why they use MySpace (or Facebook, or Bebo etc.), how they communicate with others, and how they represent themselves online."

"Recognise the importance of social networking in their daily lives, similar to that of cell phones, e-mail, or instant messenger (IM), and express an interest in understanding the role it plays."

One idea is to try a quick quiz with your child in order to find out how safety-aware they are. The cut-out-and-keep tips (for them) at the end of this article will give you some initial topics to explore.

Once up and running with your discussion, consider running through your child's MySpace, Facebook or Bebo profile with them; explaining what data is okay to include and what, if anything, might be problematic.

In doing this, make sure that their profile is 'private' (not viewable by anyone).

(Private is usually the default setting, but to double-check this head to Edit Profile or Profile Settings.)

Also talk about photos. According to the latest PEW Internet report, nearly half of online teens have posted photos where others can see them.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, as these 'others' are likely a child's friends, but chat through what type of photos are acceptable and the importance of being on guard for any strange user comments on these photos (the same PEW report found that 89% of those teens who post photos reported people commenting on the images at least "some of the time").

According to the US Department of Justice's report, 'Highlights of the Youth Internet Safety Survey', one in five children between the ages of ten and 17 in the US have received unwanted sexual advances online.

Slightly less worrying however, and as you might expect, is that at least half of these communications were found to be from other teens and not aggressive.

Still, this is certainly food for thought, so explain why it's important not to allow strangers to join your child's network.

(Once strangers are in a network, others in it - i.e. your kids' friends - will assume a level of trust with them based upon their relationship with your child, potentially widening the impact of a stranger with dodgy intentions.)

Also, if the feature is available, make sure your child configures their site's communication settings, so that they can approve any postings to their page before they 'go live'.
This limits a friend's opportunity to post an embarrassing photo or make a remark your child would rather not all their friends - or new acquaintances - be able to see.

If in doubt, these settings are usually discussed in a site's Help section (usually you'll find the link at the top right or very bottom of any web page).

An alternative

Last but not least, there is a MySpace equivalent online called, which anxious parents might want to drop into conversation.

This gives your child access to all the features they find exciting on MySpace but with one major difference - it includes a built-in parental dashboard that allows you to see everything your child does.

(Note: We're not necessarily recommending this Big Brother approach to online monitoring, simply sharing this information.)

Similar close-observance functionality is available from software programs such as Net Nanny, Bsafe Online and Webroot Child Safe, which you can Google and buy.

More valuable parental resources
Introductory MySpace videos, including a 'How to set-up a Profile' guide and further advice for parents.
MySpace's little-known service for worried parents is called ParentCare, found here.

This page provides two methods of direct contact with the MySpace team.
Facebook's privacy settings are explained here.
Details of Facebook's principles and information sharing policy.
Bebo Safety is a video-packed web page designed to help educate young users, parents and teachers about how to use the site safely and positively.
This forum is co-directed by Larry Magid of and Anne Collier of, both of them co-authors of MySpace Unraveled: What It Is and How to Use It Safely.
Larry and Anne have inside links to the major social networking sites and provide some insightful post answers.
This site features an internet safety course, originally aimed at teachers, which parents will also find valuable, plus there's an equally interesting video survey of online teens called 'Watch Your Space'.
Taking IT Global is an online community that, as its creators put it, "connects youth to find inspiration, access information, get involved, and take action in their local and global communities".

Billed as "the world's most popular online community for young people interested in making a difference", this very worthy offering might be worth you and your child visiting.


Make sure your MySpace, Facebook or Bebo profile is private - so that only your friends can see it.

Friends only

Don't accept friend requests from people you don't know, especially if they are much older than you.

Think before you post!

Think about what you are posting.

Who might see it and how could it be used?

Don't forget that photos and text can easily be saved by others, altered, e-mailed to people who are not your friends, printed, and posted on other websites.

Old posts online can also be very easily dug up by anyone at

Keep it general

Don't put your home address or phone number on your profile page, and definitely don't include any bank or passport numbers (even in private messages).

Your 'friends' might only be the ones with access to your profile, but are they friends you would share this information with in real life?

Also, their PC screens might be in public places, and hackers can get into social networking sites so still don't post any private info.

Meeting new friends

Don't agree to meet a new online friend in the real world without taking precautions.

Tell your parents you are planning to meet someone new, and if they say okay, meet in a public place with a friend.

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