Social Networking


New Orleans Police Department Crime Prevention Unit

Being Safe and Smart While Social Networking

Browsing the Internet is like having the world’s largest library and entertainment system at your fingertips. Kids are able to read stories, tour museums, visit other countries, play games, look at photographs, shop, and do research to help with homework. The Internet is a great tool for children to learn academically and socially. It also offers an array of entertainment resources, but it may also pose some risks. It can be a forum where children are vulnerable.

Social networking sites are the hippest “meet market” around, especially among tweens, teens, and 20 somethings. These sites encourage and allow people to exchange information about themselves, and use blogs, chat rooms, email, or instant messaging to communicate with the world at large. But while they can increase a person’s circle of friends, they also can increase exposure to people who have less-than-friendly intentions, including sexual predators. 

Social networking websites are here to stay… and the number and types continue to evolve on a daily basis. As these sites continue to increase in popularity so does the attention that they are getting from criminals. Now is the time to educate yourself on the proper use of these social networking websites. It is important to be aware of the risks of social networking in this cyber world we live in.

What is a Social Networking Site?

A social network service focuses on building online communities of people who share interests and/or activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others. Most social network services are web based and provide a variety of ways for users to interact, such as e-mail and instant messaging services. They provide teens and young adults with a virtual environment where they share stories, pictures, videos, and participate in chat rooms with friends and acquaintances. It can be a combination of a yearbook and a diary. The users can post photos of themselves, listen to music, chat live with their friends, search for others and list their interests. Many of the sites also allow the user to list their marital status and their location. Users can also make comments and postings on other people’s pages; like a blog. Most juveniles use the sites to display information and photos for their friends to look at and comment on. The juveniles talk to one another using the real time chat option or they send messages to be viewed at a later time, similar to an e-mail. Users connect with one another by requesting access to their friend’s profiles. The profiles can be set to private, so anyone searching the site would only see the username and a photo (if the user posts one). Users request access to others profiles and if accepted, they can view the entire page.

Popular social networking sites include Facebook, MySpace and Twitter but there are hundreds of sites and their popularity changes daily. The benefit to these sites is that they allow the user to search for people they may have lost touch with or send messages to multiple users. The sites are widely used to discover new music or connect with others with similar interests. However, if not used responsibly, social networking sites can become a huge problem for juveniles. Often times juveniles do not think about what they are posting online. Posting personal information can lead to extreme danger. These websites can be viewed by anyone in the world. Social networking sites have been linked to kidnappings, murders, child pornography, gang and drug activity, bullying, blackmail and sexual assault.

How Do They Work?

On many social networking sites, anyone with a computer and Internet access can become a member. Some sites require only an e-mail address, and many sites have no system to verify the validity of information that registrants provide. A few sites have minimum age requirements, although these sites have no reliable method to verify a user’s age. Once a member, anyone can post personal information, images, music, or other data on their Web pages, depending on the site’s features. On many sites, members select a circle of “friends” who can post messages on their profiles, add comments, or access pages not visible to other users. Unless the site allows members to control access to specific information (and members actually exercise those options), everything posted on a profile may be visible to all site visitors. Most sites require members to agree to terms of proper conduct, but enforcement of such terms is sporadic and often depends on members to report violations. 

Social Networking Sites: Your Safety’s at Stake

You’ve probably learned a long list of important safety and privacy lessons already: Look both ways before crossing the street; buckle up; hide your diary where your nosy brother can’t find it; don’t talk to strangers.

With the increase use of the Internet kids to add one more lesson to the list: don’t post information about yourself online that you don’t want the whole world to know. The Internet is the world’s biggest information exchange: many more people could see your information than you intend, including your parents, your teachers, your employer, the police — and strangers, some of whom could be dangerous. 

Social networking sites have added a new factor to the “friends of friends” equation. By providing information about yourself and using blogs, chat rooms, email, or instant messaging, you can communicate, either within a limited community, or with the world at large. But while the sites can increase your circle of friends, they also can increase your exposure to people who have less-than-friendly intentions. You’ve heard the stories about people who were stalked by someone they met online, had their identity stolen, or had their computer hacked.

The following is a list of tips for users to follow when utilizing a social networking website:

• Think about how different sites work before deciding to join a site. Some sites will allow only a defined community of users to access posted content; others allow anyone and everyone to view postings.

• Give your real age when signing up. Most sites have age requirements. If you do not meet them, then you should not be on the site. Don’t mislead people into thinking that you’re older or younger than you really are.

• Think about keeping some control over the information you post. Consider restricting access to your page to a select group of people, for example, your friends from school, your club, your team, your community groups, or your family. Set your page to private. Never let any­one onto your page that you don’t know.

• Don’t compete to see who has the greatest number of contacts and add new members to your friends list even if you don’t know them in person.

• Never use the site for dating purposes.

• Some websites and services ask users to post a “profile” with their age, sex, hobbies, and interests. While these profiles help kids “connect” and share common interests, potential exploiters may pretend to be someone else and can and do use these profiles to search for victims.

• Keep your information to yourself. Don’t post your full name, Social Security number, date of birth, address, phone number, or bank and credit card account numbers — and don’t post other people’s information, either. Be cautious about posting information that could be used to identify you or locate you offline. This could include the name of your school, sports team, clubs, and where you work or hang out.

• Make sure your screen name doesn’t say too much about you. Set a display name (screen name) that is not your actual name. Instead, make up a generic name such as “123girl.” Do not use any information in your display name that indicates personal interests or location such as “SoccerPlayer123” or “LouisvilleGal.” Don’t use your age or your hometown. Even if you think your screen name makes you anonymous, it doesn’t take a genius to combine clues to figure out who you are and where you can be found.

• Never say anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. Also, never post any­thing that you would be embarrassed for your parents to see. Post only information that you are comfortable with others seeing — and knowing — about you. Many people can see your page, including your parents, your teachers, the police, the college you might want to apply to next year, or the job you might want to apply for in five years.

• Don’t update your site with travel plans. Persons using the sites often advise they are going out of town and further update their sites while out of town. Criminals are using this infor­mation provided by the unsuspecting victim to burglarize their residence while they are out of town. Never advertise you’re going out of town or that you are out of town. You can add information after the fact.

• Don’t open up emails, files, or web pages that you get from people you don’t really know or trust.

• Do not load any software from the Internet on your computer unless your parents say it’s okay. Many contain spyware, spam applications or viruses that can jeopardize the privacy of you and your family.

• Don’t ever do anything that could cost your family money unless your parents are there to help you do it.

• Remember that once you post information online, you can’t take it back. Even if you delete the information from a site, older versions exist on other people’s computers.

• Consider not posting your photo. It can be altered and broadcast in ways you may not be happy about. If you do post one, ask yourself whether it’s one your mom would display in the living room. Do not post provocative photos, even if you are over 18 years of age.

• Flirting with strangers online could have serious consequences. Because some people lie about who they really are, you never really know who you’re dealing with.

• Be wary if a new online friend wants to meet you in person. Before you decide to meet someone, do your research: Ask whether any of your friends know the person, and see what background you can dig up through online search engines. If you decide to meet them, be smart about it: Meet in a public place, during the day, with friends you trust. Tell an adult or a responsible sibling where you’re going, and when you expect to be back.

• Trust your gut if you have suspicions. If you feel threatened by someone or uncomfortable because of something online, tell an adult you trust and report it to the police and the social networking site. You could end up preventing someone else from becoming a victim.

• If someone threatens you or makes you uncomfortable while on the site, tell an adult and report the abuse to the website. Most sites have a section where you can report misuse.

• If you are being bullied by someone, it is important to tell a parent or guardian. Make sure to save or print the messages.

• Watch out for messages from friends claiming to be stranded and asking for money. These messages may have been sent by scammers who have taken over the friend’s account. Inde­pendently confirm any information before responding.

The advent of social networking is a new and exciting way to communicate with friends, acquaintances and business associates around the world.  By practicing safe social networking techniques, the possibility of identity theft or other harms can be reduced and the experience can be exceptionally rewarding. By exploring the Internet with your kids, you greatly expand its capacity as an educational tool. By providing guidance and discussion along the way, you increase kids’ online skills and confidence along with their ability to avoid potential risks. And you might be surprised by what kids teach you at the same time. 

Thank you,

Sergeant L. J. Smith

New Orleans Police Department

Commander, Crime Prevention Unit

715 S. Broad Avenue, Office # A- 412

New Orleans, LA 70119

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