Amber* got onto Facebook when she was 12. “It was easy,” she said with a shrug. “All you have to do is lie about your age and give them your email address.” The teen, who is now 15, said, “I guess I accepted a lot of ‘Friends’ to my list without really knowing who they were.” On social networking sites, the goal is to acquire as many “friends” as possible, a virtual popularity contest that can add up to a whole lot of unknowns. That’s how “Mike,” a man posing as a teen-ager, started messaging Amber. Eventually, he suggested they meet, but before that rendezvous could happen, it emerged that Mike was really a 28-year-old delivery man from a nearby town. Amber had the sense to stop messaging him and remove him from her Friends List, but many other teens and pre-teens haven’t been so fortunate. In Texas, a lawsuit was brought against Myspace by the parents of a fourteen-year-old who was sexually assaulted by a man she met on the social networking site. The suit was dismissed in court, but the problem of how to protect teens online remains.
Dr. Cynthia Kaplan has been the program director of Adolescent Residential Services at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts for more than 15 years. She is also the co-author of the book, Helping Your Troubled Teen: Learn to Recognize, Understand, and Address the Destructive Behaviors of Today’s Teens. “Ten years ago, I used to see kids with profound psychiatric problems,” says Dr. Kaplan. “Now, on any given Monday, I see teenagers who’ve met someone over the Internet and run away. I get people coming into my office whose thirteen-year-old has been posing as an eighteen-year-old online, and invited someone back to her house. The parents wake up in the middle of the night to find a twenty-three-year old man walking into their daughter’s bedroom.”
“Teens don’t often think about the ‘cons’ of what they post, so you see them making mistakes publicly and permanently. I don’t think that teens realize the permanence of what they publish—it’s pretty impossible to take back.” —Anastasia Goodstein, author of Totally Wired
EmpoweringParents.com asked Lucy and Josh, two teens who are on both Facebook, how they would know if they were talking to an older person who was posing as a teen-ager. “You just know,” said Lucy. “It’s easy to tell.” “Yeah,” said Josh. “You just steer away from people who you don’t know, who aren’t on your list of friends.” The Norton Global Online Living Report, released earlier this year, reported some alarming results: 16 percent of kids and teens have been approached by strangers online, and 42 percent have been asked to share personal information over the Internet.
Are Lucy and Josh over-confident, or do they know what they’re talking about? Anastasia Goodstein, the author of “Totally Wired: What Your Teen is Really Doing Online” agreed with what they had to say—for the most part. “I think the whole stranger issue—it’s certainly out there, with predators as well as phishers or scammers.” Because teens don’t yet have a credit history, they are desirable targets for phishers and scammers, who break into their profiles and steal their identities, taking out credit cards and wracking up thousands of dollars worth of debt. Goodstein went on to say that identity thieves can “scrape” profiles with just a real first and last name and part of an address.
Most parents’ greatest fear when it comes to their kid’s online activities is still the issue of predators. And the fear is real: “If girls put pictures of themselves up, predators are definitely zooming in on them. Teen agers need to be smart,” says Goodstein. “The good news is that most teens are smart. They don’t want to talk to adults; they don’t want to talk to some creepy 50-year-old guy. Actually, what law enforcement found is that only about five percent of kids engage in that type of contact [after being approached initially].” The teens and pre-teens to watch closely include kids who are not yet 14 and who are lying to be on Facebook—kids who often tend to be more naïve about people they meet online. Teens who are acting out in other ways—engaging in risky behavior, which may include using drugs and alcohol—should also be watched more carefully.
“These are the teens that are more likely to be vulnerable to advances—or who might even initiate a meeting with an online stranger,” says Goodstein. Most of those meetings happen after there have been a series of contacts and communications made. “It goes back to which kids are going to do this—it’s the same girl that’s going to lie about getting into a college frat party and push those limits.”
Although the Internet may feel safe, anonymous and impermanent, actually the opposite is true. What teens don’t often realize is that what gets posted on the Internet, stays on the Internet. The online world for a teen is “Very much about confessing, talking about personal things to an invisible audience,” says Goodstein. “Who knows who it is, but everyone is in that confessional booth with their video camera. When people talk about the generation gap, they often talk about this sense of privacy. The younger generation, because they’ve grown up this way, is much more comfortable putting it out there. They’re creating their own sort of reality show about themselves on their sites.”
Since college recruiters and employers are routinely searching for profiles now before they say “yes” to applicants, a lapse in judgment can haunt teens for a long time to come. “Teens don’t often think about the cons of what they post, so you see them making mistakes publicly and permanently,” says Goodstein. “I don’t think that teens realize the permanence of what they publish—it’s pretty impossible to take back.”
While social networking sites are not inherently bad—they provide a place for teens to meet, keep in touch, and hang out, a sort of virtual mall or pizza joint—parents need to be aware of how they work. If not, says Dr. Kaplan, “The end result is that as a parent, I don’t know what my kid knows. We are already so far behind them it’s frightening. The best message is to talk to them proactively, before they join these sites.”
Understand that while most of the activity that takes place on Facebook is harmless, many teens are using social networking sites as a place to fill a void, feel popular, and hook up with other users. If you find your child’s profile online, you need to talk with them immediately about the possible consequences of posting their personal information and photos. Says Dr. Kaplan, “The whole idea here is to let the child know that the Internet is ‘public domain’ and that they do not have the privacy or anonymity they think they do.”
*Names of teens in this article have been changed.
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.