July 31, 2008

Weighing the Upside, Downside of Social Networking Sites


MySpace and Facebook social networking sites have gained an enormous amount of fame over the past few years. MySpace, now with more than 300 million users, receives more daily hits than Google. Facebook, a site that started as a 19-year-old Harvard student's project dedicated just to students of Harvard, has turned into a site with 64 million users all over the world.

For teenagers, social networking is a way to keep in touch with friends. It's a way to know what is happening within the community, a way to meet new people and talk about anything under the sun. It's a way of meeting communities of people who share interests.

Before the advent of the Internet, keeping in touch with friends and relatives could be difficult. Staying in touch with friends and relatives who lived farther away was even harder. (Long-distance phone calls could become costly as well.) But through these online techniques, tracking down a long-lost friend can take less than a second, and communicating with that long-lost person can be done with a click of a mouse. Social networking sites allow people to be friends in the blink of an eye. "In school you can't just walk up to a random person and say, 'Hey, wanna be my friend?' But you can, on MySpace," says Cindy Bloch, of the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services Missing and Exploited Children Clearinghouse. The idea of the six-degrees of separation can even come into play through social networking, for it's possible for friends to become friends of friends of friends of friends, etc. Slowly but surely, the world is becoming more and more connected online.

Social networking comes in handy for Nainita Madurai, a 2008 graduate of Williamsville East, who will be leaving the Buffalo area in the fall. "I'm glad to be using sites such as Facebook, because I know it will help me stay in touch with all my friends since we'll all be in different places because of college."

Social networking also joins people together for causes. Footprintfriends.com, for example, allows youths to act on their environmental concerns.

For musicians, MySpace is a valuable advertising tool. Any musician can easily generate a Web page to publicize their music.

Ingrid Michaelson, an unsigned musician whose music has been featured on four episodes of TV series "Grey's Anatomy," was relatively unknown until a talent agency encountered her MySpace page and got her on the show. Other artists, such as the Plain White Tees, have said that MySpace was the key to their success.

Sites such as Facebook also help in marketing, for it now offers the chance for anyone to build services for its members. Anyone on Facebook can put up an advertisement for an item, housing, jobs and free stuff for others in their neck of the woods to see. And anyone can view their friends' marketing status, and communicate through Facebook about it. Anyone is also welcome to create an application. A Facebook application enables anyone to have their content on millions of Facebook profiles all over the world. Among these applications are ILike, which lets people share music and show off their knowledge of music through competitions; Flixter Movies, which lets people rate movies along with friends; Graffiti, which lets friends scribble all over your profile page; and Causes, which allows people to tell each other what good cause they support. (There are also wacky applications such as My Aquarium, where you design your own fishtank.)

But social networking is also a rising source for safety concerns.

Schools are having presentations dedicated to teaching you how to avoid online predators. Parents are lecturing you on what and what not to have in profiles. But still teens are posting things on their profiles that make them more vulnerable to predators.

Holly Hubert, a cybercrime supervisory special agent in the Buffalo's FBI office who often gives Internet safety presentations at area schools, has some helpful advice to social networking- users. "The most common mistake that youth make is putting out too much information. Youth don't really think of the potential consequences that they put out there." For example, she said a lot of people put their phone numbers on their pages. "They don't realize that anyone can do a reverse 911 lookup and find out where they live, etc. Also, any employer, as well as college admissions offices can look at information candidates post on their pages."

One of Hubert's most serious cases occurred when a girl revealed the name of her employment firm on her Facebook page, and a stalker manipulated her, finding out where she worked, just from that information. Hubert also said the targeted age of prey gets younger and younger. "Five years ago not many people less than 14 years old would be found using these sites, but now younger children have their fingers on the keyboard, which is a danger area."

So though social networking sites are remarkable in numerous ways, one should keep in mind these words from Hubert. "Social networking sites are great, but you should always be protected. And the best measure of protection is prevention; by not placing yourself in the danger zone."

Lavanya Rao will be a sophomore at Williamsville East.

Originally published by NeXt Correspondent.

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