Imagine a website where your friends could have instant access to your changes of mood, the picture of your newest big purchase or your thoughts on your job or school. Then imagine that access opening to friends of friends — and their friends, including people you’ve never heard of.
That’s how social networking sites on the Internet, like Facebook and MySpace can work, but it doesn’t have to be that way, Detective Heather Smith from the Great Bend Police Department said Wednesday. Smith presented the Lunch ‘N Learn program "Warnings About Facebooking" at the Great Bend Activity Center.
"It can be looked at as a positive or a negative," Smith said of social networking sites such as Facebook. Whether setting up an account for yourself or monitoring the account of a youth, the first thing to learn is how to manage the site’s privacy settings. That isn’t as difficult as it may sound to a novice, but then, nothing’s difficult once you know how to do it. One source of help available on the Internet is NetSmartz, a program of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (Find it on the web at www.NetSmartz.org)
Five positive things children, teens and adults can all do on social networking sites include:
• Create family photo albums
• Champion a cause
• Join a group
• Market a talent
• Find a college
Some people are intimidated by the thought of learning to use a social network, and others may be concerned when their children join one. But they don’t have to be dangerous, Smith said. According to NetSmartz, "Social networking sites are places online where young people go to socialize with their friends, talk to people with similar interests and share what’s going on in their lives. But these sites can also be places where kids post something inappropriate or meet the wrong people."
Parents need to check on their kids’ social networking sites to keep their children safe. "The most important thing you can do to protect your child on these sites is to get involved and regularly check his/her profile," NetSmartz advises. (Protect yourself by regularly checking your own settings.) The profile page will typically show:
• Photo — Parents should approve it before it goes public. A photo should not be too revealing; don’t show anything that gives away the name of a school or street address, and don’t allow a picture that shows anything inappropriate, such as nudity, alcohol or drugs.
• Username — Either a real name or nickname. Using a real name is OK if privacy settings and contacts are carefully chosen.
• Information/About me — The user can post personal information, including who they’re dating or where they go to school. Parents should delete anything they think is too much information.
• Friends/Contacts — The list of people your child has accepted as an online friend may include some strangers. Go through the list with the child and delete or block any inappropriate contacts.
• Photos/Albums — Check for anything inappropriate.
• Comments/Wall — This is where your child’s friends post messages. Delete inappropriate comments, and report abusive behavior to the networking site. See what your child is posting on other people’s pages, too. If they using an abbreviation you don’t understand, learn the lingo by typing it into a search engine such as Google. A search for "Internet lingo MTFBWY," for example, will reveal that the letters stand for the message, "May the force be with you."
• Account/Settings — Go through each option carefully, asking yourself, "What is on the profile and who can see it?" Check the settings from time to time to make sure they haven’t changed and still fit your needs.
Ads/Apps — Most social networks have ads and applications from third parties. One of the best known applications on Facebook is the Farmville game. If your children click on these or add them to their profiles, they may be allowing access to their personal information. You may need to check the settings and privacy policies of the third parties, and have a discussion with the child about what’s OK to add and what isn’t.
In short, Smith says to anyone contemplating opening a Facebook account, "You’re always in control of who you let onto your page. Be careful what you allow on." And if someone is causing problems, they can be blocked, "unfriended" or reported.
It’s also possible to block someone’s applications. Facebook user Mary Lou Warren said she loves seeing pictures of grandchildren on her Wall, but she doesn’t want to see all of their invitations to join them in a game of Farmville. "I don’t want to feed your chickens!" she said.
Detective Smith knows not all parents are tech-savvy, but they may need t o learn if they have children. NetSmartz reports more than 70 percent of all teens are on social networking sites, which is why Smith has learned so much about it. "If I don’t keep up with technology, there’s no way to keep up with youth."