The Facebook Phenomenon
Cyber communities or social networking sites such as Facebook.com and MySpace.com have become part of millions of students' daily lives. They post profiles to these sites, typically as a way to share more about themselves and meet new friends. However, some students are going overboard on the sharing–and putting themselves in danger.
Information posted on these sites is in the public domain, available for all to see, unless students put viewing limits on them when creating their profiles. Even then, it's not a good idea to post specific addresses, phone numbers or class schedules online, according to Alison Kiss, program director at Security on Campus, Inc. Students may believe that only friends will use this information yet it's really creating a "buffet for predators," according to one campus safety expert. Stalking and harassment as a result of online profiles is a very real concern on college campuses.
This can take many forms. Someone may call your student after seeing his profile online and not stop, even when your student tries to put an end to it. Other students use information online to bully, belittle, harass or threaten other members. Hate language is sometimes used and conflicts are dragged into cyberland instead of dealt with face-to-face.
Students often don't think beyond the "I'm going to post my information online" point of view to explore some of these very real ‘what if" scenarios. Cyber communities often lull users into a false sense of security.
Here are a few words of wisdom to share with your student when discussing safety on these social networking sites:
- Think before you write. Just because a profile asks for a piece of personal information doesn't mean it has to be provided. Limit carefully the personal information that goes online, from class schedules to cell phone numbers. Rule of thumb: Include in your profile only information that already is available in the public domain.
- Check privacy settings. Many online communities offer the option to make parts of profiles accessible only to friends, while leaving other parts public. The default setting is usually called ALL PUBLIC. Set it with select access to help assure privacy.
- Be vague about location. For those who want to say where they live, it's safer to include just city and state. Listing details such as room, apartment or house number provides a specific address for whoever might want to come looking. This also can open up the way to identity theft, a stalker, unwanted visitors or unsolicited mail.
- Be careful what you write. Free speech doesn't protect hate speech.
- Remember, it's not all real. It's easy for people to misrepresent themselves online. Don't believe everything you read.
Check out MySpace.com to see what all the fuss is about. Talk openly with your student about what she's experiencing as part of a social networking site. And express your curiosity–as well as your concerns.
Online Profile Problems
- People Know Who You Are. "It [posting information online] gives one a sense of anonymity, of isolation," said David Pollock, president of Birmingham-Southern College, in The Birmingham (Ala.) News. "That's an illusion. They do that without regard that they're creating a living vitae for themselves. They wrote their own letter of reference."
- Policy Violations are Live and in Color. Most campus administrators don't go looking for policy violations on students' accounts –who has the time to do that? Yet, if it comes to administrators' attention that someone posted photos of himself drinking underage in a residence hall room, they'll need to take judicial action.
- Potential Employers Can See the Not-so-Flattering Side. Many prospective employers check out candidates' online profiles as a way to learn more about the people they're considering. If they see someone posting obscenity-laden messages or bragging about drunken escapades, they may think twice. Yes, students are entitled to a personal life but when they make it public by posting crazy things within a cyber community, they're allowing employers to create first impressions about them – before they even meet!