While the number of ways to interact via the Internet are rapidly increasing, so are the types of online social networking dangers. Long gone are the days of innocently thinking that the individual who you are conversing with online is really who he or she claims to be.
Common Online Social Networking Dangers
There are many kinds of online social networking dangers. Individuals -- both adults and teens -- need to be fully aware of what type of information can be traced back to their person through simple conversations in a chat room. For instance, telling a virtual stranger that you live in a certain town and attend a certain high school can lead that person straight to your classroom. But there are other types of dangers too. People have been known to have their identity stolen, be stalked by sexual predators or have their photos taken from their online profiles and used in unauthorized ways. People also need to realize that just because you've chatted with someone online, doesn't mean you really know that person.
Identity theft is when someone you know -- or don't know -- steals your identity and claims to be you. It can be as simple as he or she saying they are you in a forum, or as serious as stealing your Social Security number or bank account information and using it for personal or professional gain. It is, however, the most common type of theft made against a person. It is also a criminal offense and charges should be filed immediately if a law has been broken. Individuals online look to steal others' identities in a number of ways:
- E-mailing you a virus that would let them gain access to your computer
- Asking you to share your passwords with virtual strangers
- Giving someone your credit card or bank information
- Not protecting your computer and Internet access with a firewall and other secure measures
- Sharing photos of yourself, friends and family with those you don't know or posting them in a public setting
If you find you have been a victim of identity theft, contact your local police department and file a report. If banking or credit card information has been stolen, close all of the accounts in question. You can also call each of the three national credit reporting bureaus and have blocks put on your credit reports. This action will block anyone trying to access your credit report for any reason. If someone is simply stealing your profile information and using it as his or her own, then you can contact the owner of the site and have that person banned.
Sexual predators are probably the worst-feared online danger. Because Internet users can remain anonymous or lie about their identities, your children (and even some adults) really don't know with whom they are talking. Predators and pedophiles can use the Internet to exchange names, phone numbers, profiles, e-mails and even physical addresses with others pedophiles and potential victims. They can hide behind screen names (some of which are pseudonyms), make up profiles to portray someone they're not and even post photographs of people they are claiming to be. And while they operate in isolation in the real world, online they are free to say and do whatever they want. Sexual predators look for individuals who are:
- New to online social networks
- Actively seeking affection or attention
- Lonely or isolated
- Confused about sexual identity
- Easily tricked
- Aggressive computer users
- Naive about netiquette
If you or your child is ever approached by a sexual predator, contact your local police department immediately. If you can, keep track of any identifying factors about the individual including the social network he or she was on, screen name and times contact was made. Many law enforcement agencies have departments set up to handle online predators.
Protect Yourself and Your Family
There are many steps you can take to protect yourself and your family from online social networking dangers.
As parents or guardians of a minor who frequently uses the Internet for school or pleasure, there are a few things you can do to keep your child safe:
- Keep the computer centrally located in the house
- Know with whom your child is conversing; you can keep a history of all instant messages, text messages, e-mails and Web sites visited
- Never let your child meet anyone online in person without your knowledge or without you being present
- Post a set of Internet house rules near the computer that contain the following requirements:
- Never give out last name, phone number, address, school or other identifying information
- A posted amount of time he or she is allowed to spend online not doing schoolwork
- A list of social networks he or she is allowed to visit; make sure parental controls are in place
- Rules of common courtesy that include being polite and not writing anything that would be construed as sexual, racial or personal misconduct.
- Never let your child use your credit card information to purchase something
- Frequently change your passwords to your online social networks, as well as to any other account you access through the Internet.
Children and Teens
There are a some things that youths can do to keep safe while networking with others online:
- Never give out personal information to anyone
- Never make threatening or lewd remarks
- Know with whom you are chatting
- Don't believe everything someone tells you about himself or herself
- If you ever feel uncomfortable with what someone is talking about, tell an adult
You can never be too safe when it comes to the Internet. It's impossible to know everyone you talk to or who reads your public profiles on sites such as MySpace or Facebook. Be smart. Don't give any information out online that you wouldn't give to a stranger in real life.