How safe is Facebook for our children?

For most of us, Facebook is a fun place where we interact with family and friends, and even make new ones. But there is a more serious side to it as well. Between May 2008 and January 2009, more than 5 500 convicted sex offenders were found on Facebook and removed. In 2009, registered sex offender Peter Chapman was sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and murdering a 17 year old girl, whom he courted on Facebook. Australian John Zimmerman (26) claimed 55 victims by rape or other indecent sexual acts until he was arrested in 2009. His Facebook account was banned and he immediately created another fake profile claiming to be a teenager – which he used until he was arrested again in 2010.

SA Facebook predators DO exist

And even closer to home, in 2011 the “Facebook rapist” Thabo Bester was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the murder of a Milnerton model and rape of two models in Durban. He befriended them on Facebook, claiming to be a model scout.

All these reports should really raise some serious safety concerns, especially with regards to children.

Age restrictions don’t mean safety

Facebook does have an age restriction of 13. Unfortunately this is not to protect children, but because Facebook collects data on their users and their online habits (while they are using Facebook) and it is illegal in most countries around the world to collect data of children under the age of 13. In fact, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has on more than one occasion said that Facebook should be used by people and children of all ages.

The problem with Facebook and similar social networking sites, is that everyone can literally be anyone! People do not have to be themselves – there is nothing programmed into Facebook to actually verify that the user is in fact who he is. You only need a name, date of birth and email address to create a profile – and with no verification, those can be fake. The profile picture is supposed to identify the user but it can be anything – my profile pic has been our deceased cat John Deere for months now.

“Hi, I’m John, I swear I’m 14”

Even more alarming is how easy it is to create a fake profile in someone else’s name and hack their Facebook profile. All the photos on Facebook can be downloaded, so a picture of the real person can be linked to the face profile – making prospective friends think that this is the real person too.

The scary thing is, Facebook is a perfect hunting ground for anyone with paedophilic tendencies and other deviant sexual or violent behaviour. As seen in the examples above, those people lure their victims in by means of their Facebook accounts, befriending them and later meeting them in person. And since you cannot be identified in any way, there is no way that prospective victims can protect themselves against these predators. Teenagers and younger children are especially at risk, since they are generally too trusting and not very good judges of character.

Start with security settings

Some people are so trusting towards Facebook, that they will reveal personal information such as their home address and telephone numbers – making them an easier target for these kinds of perpetrators. Or they do not use one of the very little tools that Facebook actually set in place for protection – their security settings. If your security settings are set on “everyone”, it literally means that every one of those 500 million Facebook users can snoop around in your profile.

Bearing this in mind, you need to make a serious decision whether you would allow your child to use a social networking site such as Facebook. And if you do allow it, you need to lay down the rules so that your child understand and obey them. In the end, if Facebook does not protect our children, it is in our hands to protect them.

What age would you allow your kids access to social networking sites, and what tips do you have for their safety?
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