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Wednesday, 23 January 2008

In the run up to safer Internet day on 12th of February, the National Centre for Technology in Education are organizing Internet safety seminars for parents which are to begin over the next few days.

There are over one million people in Ireland using social networking websites on a daily basis. With this in mind there are sure to be risks involved, particularly where children are involved. Today we are joined by Simon Grehan from The National Centre for Technology in Education who has some great practical advice for parents who may have worries about social networking websites.

What is Social Networking?
Social networking sites develop from an initial set of members who send out messages inviting their friends to join the site. New members repeat the process, growing the total number of members and links in the network.

The value of the network for members is exponentially linked to the number of people in the network. Social networking sites offer features such as automatic address book updates, viewable profiles, the ability to form new links through "introduction services," and other forms of online social connections. These networks tend to be organized around shared common interests. MySpace, for example, builds on independent music and party scenes, and is organised around geographical location.

Bebo, is by far the most popular social networking website with Irish users. Bebo is an  online community where friends can post pictures, write blogs and send messages to one another. Each member has their own personal page, on which they can tell the world about their likes and dislikes, their favourite films and music and post up photos of their lives. Bebo links people together through the schools and colleges. This is significant in Ireland because Bebo has an extensive database of Irish schools and colleges that users can join.

What are some of things young people are doing on these sites?

1. Creating Profiles
Once they are registered with the website, users post a profile of themselves which can be read by others online. The goal is to look cool and to be acknowledged by their peers as being cool. The number of page views on a users profile is a proxy indicator of how popular they are. For users the more views the better.

2. Adding links to their friends profiles
The next step is to invite their existing contacts to join their profile. They are usually invited from their existing e-mail and messenger contact lists.

3. Creating their own blogs and posting comments on other people's profiles
An explicit reaction to their online presence offers valuable feedback to teenagers as they strive to create their identity. Comments are also a sign of affection and affiliation. There is a definite social etiquette at play; comments are expected to be reciprocated.

4. Sharing photos

Why do teenagers do this?
Many teens are using social networking sites everyday; it's just another part of their life. They are natural born multi-taskers and can be surfing social networking sites while doing their homework, downloading music, or chatting on Instant Messenger. They want to be with their friends in a space that isn't contaminated by adults and because of the constraints imposed on them; they rarely get the opportunity to do this outside their virtual environment.

The simple answer is because they like it, and they can. Bebo becomes a personalised space where they can present themeselves in a way that they control. Most of their [teenagers] space is controlled space. Adults with authority control the home, the school, and most activity spaces. Teens are told where to be, what to do and how to do it. Because teens feel a lack of control at home, many don't see it as their private space. To them, private space is youth space and it is primarily found in the interstices of controlled space. These are the places where youth gather to hang out amongst friends and make public or controlled spaces their own. Bedrooms with closed doors, for example. By going virtual, digital technologies allow youth to (re)create private and public youth space while physically in controlled spaces."

In short, places like Bebo allow young people to experiment in reasonable safety with versions of who they are. They try out various presentations of themselves, get feedback from friends and peers and work on ideas about 'cool' fashion and language all to better represent the person they want to be. There are potential risks to using social networking sites, most young people are aware of that these risks exist and yet they still come in their thousands to these sites. For them the benefits far outweigh the risks.

What are the risks of Using Social Networking websites?
Like most online activity there are risks to the users. In the case of social networking websites the risks include the unintentional disclosure of personal information, bullying or harassment, commercial exploitation and in a small number of cases targeting of users by predators. It is important to highlight that children and young people may not only fall victim to these harmful behaviours but they may also be involved in initiating, maintaining or perpetrating the same against other children, young people, adults and /or organisations..

1. Disclosing Personal Information
The way these sites work is based on users creating sites/profiles including their personal opinions and in most cased their photographs. This enables people with the same interests to meet others. Users' profiles are also a way of attracting potential girlfriends or boyfriends. Many young people will send flirtatious comments to others having been attracted to photos on their site.
The problem with posting personal information to the internet is that as soon as it goes online, you have lost control over who will see it and how it will be used. Pictures can be easily be copied and displayed in a completely different context. Because of the digital nature of the photos, they can be even be altered or distorted. Many social networking websites give the impression to users that they are in closed networks of friends. This encourages young people to disclose more personal information or to be more intimate with their communications than they would be if they thought it was a completely public forum. This is a dangerous fallacy.
The fact that certain websites claim to connect students from the same school means nothing. The information provided by users when they are registering is not validated. Anyone can create a user profile pretending to be anyone else. Moreover, anyone regardless of their real or pretend age can join as many school communities as they want.

2. Bullying and Harassment
Many social networking sites include modules where users are encouraged to rate profiles they come across on the site. This relatively innocuous capability can lead to users being sent harmful comments. As these comments usually relate to personal pictures posted on the websites they can often relate to physical appearance and ethnic origins.

There is also a tendency for offline bullying to be amplified online. Under the perception that there is a reduced likelihood of being caught and because they aren't directly confronted by the consequences of their bullying, it is easier for children to engage in bullying online than it is in the offline world. Young people need to be made aware that despite the perception it is relatively easy to trace online bullies and that the consequences of being identified can be very severe. Many online bullying activities are illegal and are frequently dealt with by the police.

3. Commercial exploitation
Children can buy music, ring tones, and Bebo widgets using their mobile phone credit. According to Irish teens interviewed in 2007 said that after bullying their biggest worry about using the Internet was the risk of exploitation by premium mobile phone services.

4. Being targeted by predators
Because there is no routine validation of users, personal information contained in profiles can be harvested by unscrupulous individuals who can use it as the basis for scams, malicious attacks, or in the worst case by pedophiles to groom potential victims. These people often operate by collecting small pieces of information at a time while slowly building up a bigger picture of their target without rousing suspicion. They can use multiple different identities to avoid detection.

Advice to Adults
As with all other internet safety issues the single biggest positive impact on children's online behaviour is caused by an active engagement by parents in their online life. Remember the chances of your child sharing their online experiences with you will be greatly reduced if they think that telling you about a problem will result in them being banned from using the Internet.

The NCTE runs seminars and workshops for teachers and parents where they can see what children are doing online by listening to teens themselves and getting guided tours of the sites they use and by getting a chance to play on Bebo and Instant messenger. Go to www.webwise .ie for more information. The object of the exercise here to equip parents and teachers to play the same role in relation to their children's use of the Internet as they do with all other media.

The more you know, the more you can support.
Get your children to talk about what they use the technology for - whether it is a mobile phone, a PC or a video games console. Your children will enjoy the fact that they can teach you something and it is an opportunity to share activities with them.

Encourage your child to be careful when disclosing personal information.
Being conscious of when and where it is all right to reveal personal information is vital, it is especially important when using social networking sites. A simple rule could be that your child should not give out any information or pictures that they wouldn't be prepared to print on a t-shirt and wear into town.

Encourage respect for others.
As in everyday life, there are informal ethical rules for how to behave when relating to other people on the Internet. These include being polite, using correct language and not harassing others. Make your children aware that despite the perceptions to the contrary, online bullying is easier to detect and trace than offline bullying. Online bullying can have more severe consequences for the victim because it is so difficult to escape from. Also because of the code of practice adopted by Internet Service Providers and mobile phone operators, companies are obliged to involve the Gardaí when illegal activity is reported to them.

Know your child's net use.
To be able to guide your child with regard to Internet use, it is important to understand how children use the Internet and know what they like to do on-line. Let your child show you which websites they like visiting and what they do there. Acquiring technical knowledge could also make it easier to make the right decisions regarding your child's Internet use.

Agree rules about time spent online.
Lots of teens expressed worries about becoming addicted to using the Internet. Although they might not say it, they will be glad to restrictions enforced on them. A good idea is to set a cut off time after which the Internet can't be used.