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Online Friendships Can Mean Offline Peril

Social Networking Sites
Online Friendships Can Mean Offline Peril

04/03/06

Girl at computerOne thing is for sure: teens love the new online social networking sites. In fact, there are tens of millions of registered users. But, as with just about any kind of cyberspace communication, there are risks involved. And you should know what they are.

What are social networking sites exactly? They are websites that encourage people to post profiles of themselves—complete with pictures, interests, and even journals—so they can meet like-minded friends. Most also offer chat rooms. Most sites are free; some restrict membership by age.

So what’s the problem? These sites can be appealing to child sexual predators, too: all that easy and immediate access to information on potential victims. Even worse, kids want to look cool, so they sometimes post suggestive photos of themselves on the sites.

How pervasive is the problem? So far, despite all the media attention, criminal incidents are rare on these 200 different social networking sites. Still, we’ve opened dozens of cases nationwide regarding activity on the sites and have received more than 500 complaints. For example:

  • Earlier this year, a 33-year-old Alabama man met a 14-year-old girl from New Jersey over one site and later met and abused her in Florida.
  • Same story—in October, between a 13-year-old girl from Georgia, whose online profile said she was 29, and a 30-year-old South Carolina man.
  • Last September, an 11-year-old girl was fondled in her Connecticut home—while her parents slept—by a man she’d met through an online network and let into her home. Most sites take member safety seriously—restricting membership by age, offering warnings, and discouraging members from posting personal information. Some also include links to the Cyber Tipline—run by our partners at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children—to report any improper conduct. But sexual predators still manage to sneak through. 

What can you do to keep your children safe, especially if they are visiting networking sites? Most importantly, be aware and involved:

  • Monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep your Internet computer in an open, common room of the house.
  • Tell your kids why it’s so important not to disclose personal information online.
  • Check your kids’ profiles and what they post online.
  • Read and follow the safety tips provided on the sites.
  • Report inappropriate activity to the website—or law enforcement—immediately.

Stay tuned…in the near future a cyber agent will offer more advice on safe Internet practices.

Resources:
- Violent Crimes Against Children webpage