Social Networking

Social networking is one of the most popular online activities in Canada. In fact, according to the Canada Online! study, 40 per cent of all Canadians use a social networking site. Facebook is the most popular of these sites by a long shot, with over seven million active Canadian members.

A social networking site is a place on the Web where interactions take place between friends and where new friendships and social networks are created. These sites each have a different purpose. Some, like LinkedIn focus on professional relations; others, such as Flixster deal with specific interests (in this case, movies); finally, there are those like Facebook that link up friends and relatives.

It’s not surprising that young people have taken to social networking – they are social creatures who need to constantly stay in touch with friends. The great majority of teens (53%) participate in some sort of social activity online. Social networking sites are where they spend most of their time leaving messages for their friends, sharing interesting links or information and posting photos and videos.

As with the adults, Facebook is the most popular social networking site for Canadian teens, with younger kids choosing to socialize in virtual worlds such as Club Penguin, Webkinz and Neopets.

What you need to know

  • As with most technologies, kids use social networking sites differently from adults. Teens see these sites as places to hang out; much the same way previous generations would go to the mall or a park. Although both teens and adults use this technology to seek out friends from their past and make new ones, the main focus for teens is chatting and making social plans with existing friends.
  • One of the main issues with social networking sites is the open access that is provided to users’ personal information. Rather than banning these sites, adults need to ensure that young people understand the privacy implications of posting intimate details of one’s life in a public space where anyone can access and download their information, photos and videos.
  • Photos posted in social networking sites can be particularly problematic for teens. Many sites let users label or “tag” people in photos they post, which means embarrassing pictures of kids where they are identified by name may be posted without their permission. And some of these photos can have a long shelf life and could come back to haunt a young person when they are applying for jobs or to post secondary institutions.

    These photos can be difficult to remove. If a teen wants a photo taken down from someone else’s page they have to ask the member who posted it to remove it. And bad taste or potential embarrassment is not necessarily reason enough for removal: for example, Facebook states that it cannot make people delete photos unless they violate its Terms of Use.

    New technology means new forms of etiquette: a basic courtesy teens need to learn is asking permission from their friends before posting or tagging photos that include them. (Not to mention, thinking twice about the sorts of pictures of them and their friends they are posting in the first place.)
  • Social media such as Facebook, texting and instant messaging are wonderfully efficient tools for planning parties. The downside is there is no way to control how many people will eventually receive a party invitation. Adults need to talk to kids about the risks of putting party information out through their online social networks.

Privacy issues

Teens need to understand that when you post anything online, you need to consider both your intended audience – like your friends – and a possible unintended audience – which can include anybody from marketers to people you definitely wouldn’t want to share your pictures, personal information and comments with.

Learning how to apply privacy settings on social networking sites is an important way to safeguard not only your personal information – but your reputation as well.

Because Facebook is overwhelmingly the most popular social networking site with Canadian teens, we’ve chosen it as our example. During the registration process, Facebook provides numerous opportunities to post personal information: when completing their profile, users are encouraged to include as much detail as possible by filling out the many spaces available.

The site does offer options and settings to protect information, but young people have often disregarded these options in favour of the default option which is “Everyone”.

Facebook’s privacy settings function differently for users under 18 than for adults:

  • To begin with, users under 18 can only get messages from Friends or Friends of Friends, while adults can get them from any other Facebook user
  • Only Friends or Friends of Friends can tag a user under 18 in a photo or post, and the Tag Review setting (which notifies you if you are tagged) is set to “On” by default for young users
  • Location sharing is “Off” by default for users under 18, and
  • While posts by young users may be marked “Public”, for users under 18 this setting is the same as “Friends of Friends.”

(For more detail see “How does privacy work for minors?” at the Facebook Help Center.) It’s important to note, though, that these settings are only in effect if Facebook knows a user is under 18: if a user has lied about his or her age to join before turning 13 – as a significant number of youth have – Facebook will see them as adults if they have given an age over 18.

It’s worth taking a minute to learn more about the privacy options that are available on any site – a good place to start on Facebook is to spend some time reviewing its Data Use Policy with young people.