Social Networking

Social networking sites vary considerably in their policies concerning inappropriate content. Most popular sites are targeted at teens as well as adults, so they gear their policies appropriately. Other sites are unabashed in their tolerance for illicit content, stating in effect, “This is a site for adults and we don’t police content. Enter at your own risk.” At least with these sites you know where you stand and it’s easy to avoid them. For sites that establish family friendly standards and then consistently enforce them, it is also easy to feel like you know where you stand. Unfortunately, in many situations the stated policies and the behavior of the sites’ users stand in sharp contrast. In my view the companies managing the sites have an obligation to their users to clearly state their policies (which most do) and then strictly enforce their own policies (which most don’t).

Given the inconsistency in policy enforcement, what are you to do? The first recommendation I’d make is to read the terms of use for the site. If they unapologetically declare their site to be friendly to “adult” content, it’s probably best to move along. If they say that illicit content is permitted but then rely on users to tag their own content and other users to notify them of any problems, it’s pretty certain that there will be plenty of problems. If you’ve read about this site disabling accounts for violation of content policies, that’s an indicator that they take their policy at least somewhat seriously. My second recommendation would be to walk around the site and get your own sense of things. If you feel spiritually dark about what you see there, it’s probably a good indicator that you should move along.

Facebook is the most popular social networking site at the time of this writing, with the number two site being LinkedIn, a primarily professional network. Without offering up an unconditional endorsement, my experience is that Facebook is extremely tame, and LinkedIn is a great deal like a business conference (boring and efficient). Many of the other less popular social networking sites have a more significant adolescent or promiscuous slant, and it shows, especially in the now infamous, provocative, immodest, duck-face self-portraits taken with cell phone cameras that littered the profiles of sites like MySpace.

YouTube is popular enough to deserve special mention. I’m including it here under social networks because it is massive social network built around video sharing. Of course, the previous discussion of video and image search applies here as well. YouTube allows inappropriate material, but asks that it be marked for users 18 and older. The primary weakness lies in the fact that while most individuals posting mature content will flag it according to the YouTube terms of use, an individual is free to post a video with inappropriate content. When that happens, it requires the community to get involved and flag the video as inappropriate. But herein lies a Catch-22: The people looking for the content in such a video are, for the most part, happy to have found pornography that isn’t restricted, and aren’t likely to report it; people who would be apt to report such content aren’t likely to go looking for it, or to click on such content in the first place. The second weakness lies in the fact that the only constraint YouTube places around access to blocked content is that the user be registered, that he or she assert an age over 18, and then be logged in to see that content. It’s trivial for a youngster to acquire a free email account, use that to create an account on YouTube, lie about his age, and then access inappropriate content without restriction.

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