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Social networking

Social networking is one of the most popular online activities in Canada. In fact, according to the Canada Online! study, 40 per cent of all Canadians use a social networking site Facebook being the most popular of these sites by a long shot, with over seven million active Canadian members.

A social networking site is a place on the Web where interactions take place between friends and where new friendships and social networks are created. These sites each have a different purpose. Some, like LinkedIn focus on work relations; others, such as Flixster deal with specific interests (in this case, movies); finally, there are those like Facebook that link up friends and relatives.

It’s not surprising that young people have taken to social networking – they are social creatures who need to constantly stay in touch with friends. The great majority of teens (53%) participate in some sort of social activity online. Social networking sites are where they spend most of their time leaving messages for their friends, sharing interesting links or information and posting photos and videos.

As with the adults, Facebook is the most popular social networking site for Canadian teens, with younger kids choosing to socialize in virtual worlds such as Club Penguin, Webkinz and Neopets.

What parents need to know

  • As with most technologies, kids use social networking sites differently from adults. Teens see these sites as places to hang out; much the same way previous generations would go the mall or a park. Although both teens and adults use this technology to seek out friends from their past and make new ones, the main focus for teens is chatting and making social plans with existing friends.

  • One of the main issues with social networking sites is the open access that is provided to users’ personal information. Rather than banning these sites, parents need to ensure their kids understand the privacy implications of posting intimate details of one’s life in a public space where anyone can access and download their information, photos and videos.
  • Photos posted in social networking sites can be particularly problematic for teens. Many sites let users label or “tag” people in photos they post, which means embarrassing pictures of kids where they are identified by name may be posted without their permission. And some of these photos can have a long shelf life and could come back to haunt a young person when they are applying for jobs or to post secondary institutions.

    These photos can be difficult to remove. If you want one taken down from someone else's page you have to ask the member who posted it to remove it. And bad taste or potential embarrassment is not necessarily reason enough for removal: for example, Facebook states that it cannot make people delete photos that don’t violate its Terms of Use.

    New technology means new forms of etiquette: a basic courtesy teens need to learn is asking permission from their friends before posting or tagging photos that include them. (Not to mention, thinking twice about the sorts of pictures of you and your friends you’re posting in the first place.)
  • Social media such as Facebook, texting and instant messaging are wonderfully efficient tools for planning parties. The downside is there is no way to control how many people will eventually receive a party invitation. Parents need to talk with their kids about the risks of putting party information out through their online social networks.

Privacy issues

Teens need to understand that when you post anything online, you need to consider both your intended audience – like your friends – and a possible unintended audience – which can include anybody from marketers to people you definitely wouldn’t want to share your pictures, personal information and comments with.

Learning how to apply privacy settings on social networking sites is an important way to safeguard not only your personal information – but your reputation as well.

Because Facebook is overwhelmingly the most popular social networking site with Canadian teens, we’ve chosen it as our example. During the registration process, Facebook provides numerous opportunities to post personal information: when completing their profile, users are encouraged to include as much detail as possible by filling out the many spaces available.

The site does offer options and settings to protect information, but young people have often disregarded these options in favour of the default option which is “Everyone”.

However, in December 2009, Facebook changed its policies to protect users under the age of 18 by limiting their privacy settings to “Friends of Friends” and “Networks”. In addition, their information is not available to search engines. These protections only work, of course, if kids have not lied about their age and registered as an adult.

This is what the Facebook site says about its privacy protection for minors:

Minors (anyone under 18) who use Facebook have a slightly different experience with privacy than adults. Both adults and minors have publicly available information (name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, Friend List, Page) that will appear when people navigate to their profile and may be accessed by applications that they use. Adults and minors both appear in search results on Facebook.

However, the "Everyone" setting works differently for minors than it does for adults. When minors set information like photos or status updates to be visible to "Everyone," that information is actually only visible to their friends, friends of friends, and people in any school or work networks they have joined. Additionally, minors do not have public search listings created for them, so they do not appear in outside search engines until they have turned 18.

It’s worth taking a minute to learn more about the privacy options that are available on any site – a good place to start on Facebook is to review its Privacy Guide with your kids.

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Additional Resources

Canada Online! Year Two Highlights, 2007 (Canadian Internet Project)

What Does Facebook’s Privacy Transition Mean for You? (Demand Your dotRights)

Five tips to manage Facebook's new privacy settings (The Globe and Mail, January 3, 2010)

The New Facebook Privacy Settings: A How-To (The New York Times, December 11, 2009)

5 Easy Steps to Stay Safe (and Private!) on Facebook (The New York Times, September 16, 2009)

A Parent's Guide to Facebook (ConnectSafely, 2010)