Social networking sites can lead teens into deep water;
No responsible parent would hand a blank check to his or her 14-year-old with instructions to go anywhere they want, spend as long as they like and engage in intimate discussions with anyone they meet, including total strangers.
Yet millions of young teenagers walk through that open door every day on Web sites that encourage social interaction. Far too often, teens reveal more personal information about themselves on the Web than they would ever consider disclosing in person to a stranger.
And far too often, there are unscrupulous people on the other end – from predators, to scam artists and unsolicited sales pitches – ready to take advantage of the innocent exchanges.
Jared Olson, an Idaho prosecuting attorney who specializes in drug cases, demonstrated to ITD employees recently how easy it is to research and track down teenagers who use social networking sites. He delivered two presentations at the nearly full Headquarters auditorium.
Olson showed how teens use such Web sites to locate drinking and drug parties and arrange illicit rendezvous. He does not distinguish between drugs and alcohol – the latter is a drug that impairs an individual’s ability to reason and react, just like other drugs. Alcohol is the most common drug abused … more than all other drugs combined, he insisted.
A child will take his or her first drink of alcohol at about age 12, and though the numbers off teenage drinkers have declined slightly, more children are turning to binge drinking. Olson estimates Idaho has more than 64,000 underage drinkers.
Technology – from the social interactive Web sites to text and video messaging – make it easier for teens to participate in drinking parties. It’s a new phenomenon that has caught most parents by surprise, and it’s transpired within the last five years.
MySpace.com was born in 2003 and has spawned other competing sites. In one-half decade, MySpace has grown to 200 million accounts, and 118 million identifiable users, Olson said. They build on live chat rooms that began in the late 1990s with Internet providers such as MSN and Yahoo. More than 90 percent use the social networking sites to converse with individuals they see frequently.
“There were no such things as home computers, the Internet, MP3 players, cell phones or other technological advances now commonly used by children,” Olson said of his childhood. “Communicating with my friends was accomplished through face-to-face conversations, passing notes in class or by our one and only telephone that was attached to the wall in the kitchen, with a cord that stretched a maximum of eight feet.
‘How much do parents really know about their child’s world, especially as children adapt to new technologies so quickly? Unfortunately, parents still see only a glimpse of the world in which their child lives, especially as they enter their teen years. Three-fourths of teens report that their parents ‘almost never’ monitor the Web sites they frequent or the time they spend online.”
Although many social networking sites have minimum age limits for participating, there is no verification process. Adult predators, who are prohibited from using the sites, easily find ways around the restrictions by constantly registering under a new name and posing as a teen.
“There have been numerous reports through the media (including NBC’s Dateline) of child sexual predators using the Internet to lure children. However, social networking sites are avenues for other predators as well…” Olson explained.
“Children can be exposed to images, messages and materials that are highly regulated through more traditional avenues such as television and radio. In addition, the self-promotion occurring between the children themselves offers great dangers.”
His message for parents is to stay involved in their children’s lives, even on the Internet.
“Do not be afraid to treat social networking sites just like you would other privileges given to your children. Set boundaries, monitor use and discipline just like you would with anything else…,” Olson said.
“You should have full access to your child’s site, either by having their password or by doing random site checks with your child. The computer should be put in a family place where there is lots of traffic. This allows for better supervision of what your child is doing on the computer.