Two issues are preeminent with respect to predators when children join social networking sites: 1) privacy and excessive information sharing, and 2) contact with strangers.20
Social networking sites are a goldmine of private information for a predator to prey upon potential victims. When a predator meets someone online, say in a chat room, it’s a natural next step to look up a potential victim’s profile on Facebook or Instragram, which all too often is set up for public accessibility. When a teen posts that they’re depressed, that their parents don’t understand them, or that they’re going through a nasty breakup (so devastating when you’re thirteen, right?) then there’s a perfect opportunity to swoop in and pour on the comfort. Meanwhile, the victim loves horses? What a coincidence, so do you! She lives in North Carolina? That’s where you grew up! Get the picture? TMI (too much information) as they say, is like gasoline on a fire when it comes to equipping a potential predator with enough material to emotionally manipulate an unsuspecting youth.
Social networks fall roughly into two categories: Those that help you maintain relationships with people you already know in the real world and those that help you build relationships with people you don’t already know.21 If you were an online predator, where would you invest most of your time and effort? As a case in point, in 2009, MySpace found more than 90,000 registered sex offenders with profiles.22 That doesn’t count predators that had not yet been caught and prosecuted (what I refer to as “those trying to become registered”).
When you consider that approximately two-thirds of all teenagers in the United States have a profile on a social networking site, and that more than half of those teens have posted a picture of themselves, it’s like a buffet for online predators. When social networking sites have minimum age requirements (for example, thirteen for Facebook), parents should understand that their own personal standards, particularly when informed by the light of the gospel, should probably be higher than the company’s. If a company finds it unwise for eight-year-olds to have profiles, you might want to consider that as well. A recent Consumer Reports study found that 7.5 million Facebook users were under the minimum age of thirteen.23
Contact with strangers via social networks can include friend requests. In the heyday of MySpace, acquisition of many friends was a status symbol (what some refer to as becoming “famo”—pronounced “fame-oh”—meaning “Internet famous”). In order to get the friend count up, many young people chose to post provocative or immodest pictures of themselves. (These obnoxious MySpace cell phone self-portraits have become cliché in social networking circles.) They’d attract the wrong kind of crowd, to be sure, but that was the game of becoming “famo.” That ethic, fostered by sites such as MySpace, created a very fertile breeding ground for predatory behaviors.
A final note on social networking: We typically think of Facebook when we talk about social networking. But the truth is that a social network is any network (digitally assisted or not) consisting of those with whom we have social relationships. So any mechanism that we use to share about ourselves forms a part of our own personal social network.
Aside from chat rooms, grooming is facilitated through mobiles, email exchange, blogs and other types of social networking sites where children can create their own social contents and make it accessible to other users. At the same time, they become targets to predators. 24