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Parent’s Guide to Social Networking Sites

MySpace, Yahoo!Chat, Facebook, and Twitter.  Do these names sound familiar to you? These are examples of social networking sites. Such sites allow people to make new friends, send messages, share photos, etc. In recent times, these sites have become very popular among teens all over the world.

Can Social Networking Sites be Harmful?

Social networking sites are a great way to catch up with old friends and meet new interesting people. In fact, they also promote literacy skills, knowledge sharing, and social skills. But can they be dangerous?  Here are a few recent cases related to social networking sites:

• Cases have been reported in the UK and US of  sexual predators posing as teenagers and trying to solicit young children and teenagers.

• A mother was happy that her eleven-year-old daughter was using the computer often. However, she was horrified to see her daughter posting inappropriate photos on her profile on a popular social networking site.

• A  teenager, was shocked when the police came to his house one day. An acquaintance from his college had filed a complaint. Apparently, someone had sent obscene messages to his acquaintance using his account and password.

•The daughter of a school teacher, logged on to a social networking site. What she saw really hurt her. Few of her father's students had created a forum on the site. Some of the posts used obscene language to describe him and his family.

As you can see, social networking sites can be potentially damaging if not properly handled. As a parent, how do you protect your child from untoward incidents?

What Your Child Needs to Know

You may not always be able to prevent your child from using these sites. However, it is necessary to educate him on correct practices to follow while using these sites.

Privacy and Safety : Some social networking sites promote privacy while some allow anyone with Internet access to view personal pictures and profile information of other people. It is important that you recognize safe, good quality sites where your child's personal information cannot be misused. Explain the possible risks of using a social networking site. Encourage your child to:

• Never reveal addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, passwords, or any bit of personal information. People with malicious intent can misuse such information to trace your child.

• Never add a stranger as a friend or share personal information with him. In the past, pedophiles have used social networking sites to target young unsuspecting children.

• Avoid meeting someone who is just an online contact in person. If your child is planning to meet someone he met online, ensure that it happens under your supervision, at least for the first few times. Find out more about the person's background. Ask yourself, is he the same age as your child? What does he do?

• Never upload his picture unless he is sure that only his friends can view his photo and personal information. Posting one's name, photos, and location makes it easy for someone to locate the person.

• Never click any links that come from strangers in messages or emails. More often, such links turn out to be promotions of  websites, especially pornography. In rare cases, the link may be a virus or malicious program. Such programs can be used to track every  website you visit, what text you type, etc.

Netiquette:  Just as in the real world, we need to maintain a basic set of manners in the online world. Here are some tips that you should share with your children:

• Never use abusive, sexually explicit, or inappropriate language in an online forum, email, message, or profile. Denigrating other religions, people, and races should be avoided.

• Never post inappropriate images that show nudity, personal information, blood, and violence in albums or as a profile picture.

• Never use social networking sites to spread rumours, chain mails, and unconfirmed stories that can potentially damage someone's life or career.

What You Can Do

• Encourage your child to speak openly about his experiences and problems.

• Install software that can control access to objectionable sites, especially if your child is below 13. Net Nanny is an example.

• Encourage your child to share his profile link with you. Remember, many children have multiple accounts on different social networking websites.

• Monitor his profiles regularly. At the same time, respect his privacy. For example, do not send him messages that his friends can read. Your son may find it embarrassing.

• Do not force your child to avoid such sites. Your child will soon find other ways to access these sites.

Social networking websites have their advantages and drawbacks. You may not always be able to protect your child from untoward incidents. What is important is to help him think critically for himself.