Social Networking: Friend or Foe?

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How would you feel if you knew that your online profile could be visible to everyone, from the college admissions office to the pedophile in your neighborhood? All of your sensitive information that you’ve posted, such as your phone number and your personal photos, have been completely exposed. That provocative picture of you at a friend’s party, meant for close friends only, would now be visible to future bosses and employers. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center for their “Internet and American Life” project, teens continue to be avid users of social networking websites. As of September 2009, approximately 73% of wired American teens ages 12 to 16 used an online social networking website, a statistic that has continued to climb upwards from previous studies. In fact, Facebook, which is arguably one of the most popular websites on the Internet, has more than 600 million active users as of January 2011. These statistics make it evident that social networking websites have become increasingly popular and undoubtedly very influential on our daily lives. These websites have enabled people to not only reconnect with friends and family, but they have provided an excellent medium for sharing information and staying in touch. One uploads pictures, shares information, and tells the world what he or she is doing. However, despite these advantages of social networking sites, a growing number of problems have also developed. Concerns over privacy and safety, in particular, have arisen. I believe that social networking sites do more harm than good, so it is important that teenagers and adults alike be wary of what they do on such websites. The use of social networking websites should be reduced and carefully monitored.

According to research conducted by Get Safe Online, 34% of young adults aged 16-24 willingly posted sensitive personal information, such as email address, home address, and phone number. This compromises one’s safety online, as stalkers and other unfamiliar people could easily get one’s contact information. In addition 41% of children aged 8-17 had a social networking profile visible to anyone. This means that stalkers and pedophiles would be able to view their pictures and have access to their status updates. It is absurd that these statistics are not much lower, as posting sensitive personal information and having a publicly visible profile compromise the privacy of the user. However, other social networking websites besides Facebook are even more intriguing. Imagine a world in which as soon as you arrived anywhere, an alert was sent out to your friends, family, and even to people you don't even know. Foursquare, another popular social networking website does just that. Using GPS technology, people “check-in” at venues through their mobile device. Each check-in awards the user points and sometimes “badges.” Although this system of earning points for checking in to locations may seem appealing, Foursquare definitely raises privacy concerns. As of January 2011, Foursquare has more than six million users, and that number is still rising. It is unfortunate that people are signing up for a website that provides one with the opportunity to be stalked online. Perhaps the biggest danger, however, with location-based social networking websites such as Foursquare is that one is publicly telling the world where he or she is. It leaves one place where you’re definitely not: home. This increases the chance of violent crimes and theft. For example, if one checks in through Foursquare at a restaurant far away from home, he or she is basically sending an open invitation to burglars.

The ever so popular social networking websites, especially Facebook and Myspace in particular, have also developed a nasty side: bullying. When the Internet or mobile devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person, it is known as cyber bulling. As social networking websites have become increasingly popular among teenagers, the prevalence of cyber bullying has also been rising at an alarming rate. According to a study conducted by i-SAFE America, 58% of teenagers admit someone has said mean or hurtful things to them online that are considered cyber bullying. However, more than half of these people have not told their parents or an adult about their harassment online. In some extreme cases, cyber bullying and online harassment can sometimes lead to depression and suicide. On October 16, 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier was found dead in her bedroom closet, after hanging herself. An investigation soon followed, and it was determined that Meier was being harassed on her Myspace profile. The mother of a former friend of Megan's allegedly created a fictitious Myspace profile, under the name Josh Evans, in order to gain Megan's trust and learn what Megan was saying about her daughter. But the communication between them eventually turned hostile, as compliments turned to insults. Soon, bulletins were being posted about her, saying things like “Megan Meier is a slut, Megan Meier is fat,” according to the Associated Press. The stress and frustration from being harassed online was too much for Megan, who had a history of depression, and she decided to take her own life. The Internet gives people a false sense of security and power, and so people act how they ordinarily wouldn’t. Unfortunately, this can lead to cyber bullying, which is a very cruel and malicious thing to do. In 2009, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, warned that “…the trend towards creating an alternative reality of fragile virtual relationships leaves children and teenagers vulnerable when these broke down…Often, a key factor in young people committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships.”

Online predators, especially child molesters and sexual predators have discovered that these social networking sites can be exploited to find unsuspecting victims. It is estimated that there are over five million predators lurking on the Internet. 77% of the targets of these online predators were 14 years or older. For example, in 2006, a 14-year-old girl began receiving graphic messages from a much older man, asking whether she was “OK with me being 38?” According to Sergeant Dan Krieger of the League City, Texas police department, it was not the first time that this alleged predator, Robert Wise, used the Internet to look for sex. Wise is now in custody, charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. Unfortunately, however, this is just one of the many cases in which online predators have exploited social networking websites. In New Jersey, Majalie Cajuste is grieving the murder of her daughter, Judy. The 14-year old high school freshman was found dead in a park, with her body left in a dumpster. Autopsy results revealed that she was strangled to death, and police consider this a homicide. Police believe that she had met her killer on Myspace, who was apparently a man in his twenties. By interacting online with people they didn’t know in real life, teenagers are opening the door to trouble. With predators on the Internet who are targeting teenagers through their social networking profiles, teenagers need to be more aware of whom they are communicating with online. That 15-year old girl one met on Facebook but never saw in real life could easily be a 50-year old man, hiding behind his computer monitor. By carefully monitoring one’s use on such websites, one can reduce the risk of contacting a predator online. Martin Neil Baily, PhD, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated “I am by inclination a technology optimist, believing that the bad things will be filtered out over time and net benefits will emerge. But in the early stages of any new technology, the buyer must beware.”

I understand that some people believe social networking sites can be beneficial, and do more good than bad. For example, Brendesha Tynes, PhD, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, argued that online social networking “…can facilitate identity exploration and provide social cognitive skills.” In addition, Tynes goes on to argue that “As teens prepare to enter the adult social world, online social environments provide training wheels, allowing young people to practice interaction with others in the safety of their homes.” But what good does an online social environment, such as Myspace, do when over half of the teenage users are being harassed online? What “social skills” are being developed when teenagers are being bullied online to the point where they feel they need to suicide? How are teenagers prepared to enter the adult social world, when they are taught that relationships are quickly disposed of at the click of a mouse? How do they enter the real world when they are taught that one can delete one’s profile if he or she doesn’t like it and swap identities in the blink of an eye? Furthermore, some also argue that social networking websites offer valuable mass-communication services. They say that these social networking services, namely Facebook and Twitter, could also be especially useful in the education field. They argue that applications can be created on Facebook for lessons, and teachers can contact their students quickly and efficiently through Twitter messages. This would eliminate the need for a classroom setting, as each student with a computer and Internet access would be able to learn in the comfort of their own home. However, is educating through Facebook and Twitter really a step forward, or is it really more counterproductive? If teenagers were to be given lessons through Facebook and Twitter, they would be spending even more time in front of a computer. They would have less time to interact socially in the real world with their friends, which would not develop vital interaction skills as teens prepare to enter the adult social world. Although social networking websites do carry truly impressive advantages, the number of risks on such websites far outnumbers the advantages.
Overall, the benefits of social networking websites are few and the drawbacks are many. Social networking sites are exploited by online predators, promote cyber bullying, and compromise the privacy of its users. However, the risks associated with social networking sites can be easily diminished by simply using such websites less and carefully monitoring how they are used. The next time one logs into a Facebook, Twitter, or Myspace account, make sure the privacy settings are modified so that only friends can see one’s profile. By reducing the time one spends on social networking websites and carefully monitoring usage on them, one can communicate with friends online, assured that one’s privacy will not be compromised and one will be safe online. It’s not necessary to completely delete one’s many online profiles and be isolated from all forms of online social interaction. However, one simply needs to be wise on these websites. Does one really want the youth of tomorrow to be absorbed in an online social environment, filled with danger?





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