Can you remember life before Facebook? The majority of the young people you work with really can’t. While our online and offline worlds have now entirely merged, Simon Bass advises youth workers of the dangers of social networking sites, and how to navigate a safe path – for ourselves and the young people we serve – through the issues created by them.
Facebook and other social networking sites are an extraordinary phenomenon. They are a great way of keeping in touch with family and of making new friends. Such is their popularity and success that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has amassed a fortune of nearly $7bn.
A young person opening a Facebook account is given many different options. The varied privacy settings ensure they can control precisely what information about themselves they wish to share, and with whom. Alternatively, they can fully engage with social networking by clicking on the ’find friends’ button. The very attraction of such sites is that they enable people fully to inhabit the digital world, with all it offers. Any restrictions would, potentially, defeat the very purpose of joining such sites.
So, can young people engage through the social networking behemoth Facebook, safely? And what issues face youth workers dealing with Facebook in church settings?
Facebook has nearly 500 million active users and a reported 700,000 new people join every day. But how carefully do users consider their online privacy and safety? Facebook settings change very frequently, which may confuse users about their privacy. A recent poll found that 93% would prefer privacy options to be opt-in rather than opt-out – a worrying sign(?). That said, Internet security company Sophos undertook a study in 2009 which found that:
- 46% of Facebook users accepted friend requests from strangers
- 89% of users in their 20s divulged their full birthday
- Nearly 100% of users post their email address
- Between 30-40% of users list data about their family and friends
There are worrying implications here about the susceptibility of individuals to be victims of fraud, and for their personal information to be used unscrupulously.
The dangers of Facebook?
Some horror stories that have come to light over the past few years include:
- In 2009 a teenager became the first person to be jailed for issuing death threats on Facebook following a vicious Internet campaign against another teenager.
- In October 2009, 17 year-old Ashleigh Hall was kidnapped and murdered by a 32 year-old man posing as a teenager on Facebook.
- The same year, nursery nurse Vanessa George abused children in her care and recorded her actions on Facebook.
- In August 2010, a sexual offender was jailed for distributing 100,000 images of child abuse on Facebook.
- In September 2010, a 14 year old girl invited 15 friends to her 15th birthday party by creating an ‘event’ on Facebook. She ticked the ‘anyone can view and RSVP’ box, making it available for anyone to see. She included her address on the invitation. Unsurprisingly, over 21,000 people replied saying they were coming. The party was cancelled amidst huge distress and extra police patrols were arranged to reassure family and neighbours that they were not about to be invaded.
While the problems associated with Facebook are real, it is important to recognise that technology itself is morally neutral – it is neither good nor bad, it merely enables. For example, children have always been bullied. But what was once confined to the school-yard gates has expanded and now also takes place in the home through the internet, game consoles and mobile phones. This is termed ‘cyber bullying’. Many police officers now say the online and offline worlds have completely merged.
Living in the digital world
We know about the benefits of the Internet and related technologies but we are slow to consider the pitfalls. Our culture wants everything instantly, and our thirst for knowledge is similarly insatiable and immediate. Young people are incredibly attuned to the possibilities of digital media. In an instant we take a photograph on a mobile phone and within seconds transport it to friends or family on the other side of the world.
But they may be less aware that everything we do on line leaves a digital footprint. That means that every email and text, every post on Facebook, will exist forever. While the misdemeanours of previous generations could often be hidden, that option is not available to young people if they misbehave or just do something silly online. Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive of Google, said recently that they may have to resort to changing their names in order to escape their ‘cyber past’: ‘I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time.’
President Barack Obama agrees. Last year he warned American teenagers about the dangers of putting too much personal information on social networking sites, saying it could come back to haunt them: ‘Be careful about what you post on Facebook, because in the YouTube age, whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life.’
It is an especially bad idea to post provocative photos or racy prose on social networking sites, no matter how private teens think they are. Universities and employers are increasingly conducting Internet searches when considering applicants. According to a 2008 Kaplan study in the USA, one in 10 college admissions officers routinely check out college applicants’ Facebook and MySpace pages. And 38% found posts and pictures that reflected poorly on those prospective students. How many young people have unwittingly failed to get the plum college place or job they were otherwise well qualified for, simply because they put something inappropriate on Facebook years earlier?
The role of the youth worker?
Youth workers face two key issues. Firstly, the risks young people in general face when they use social networking sites, and secondly how they ensure that church workers are fully accountable in their dealings with the young people for whom they are responsible.
Accountability and Reputation
Facebook allows youth workers to communicate with young people in many different ways. These include posts, writing on a person’s ‘wall’, sending messages similar to an email, through live chat (perhaps on a web camera) and through sharing photographs. It is all-pervasive and may be accessed almost anywhere on the planet via a mobile phone. The technology has improved to the extent that it has now launched ‘Places’ – a location-aware service which allows people to ‘check in’ wherever they are and see which friends and other Facebook users live locally.
The key implication of all this for youth workers is that they must manage their own online identities and presences correctly. On Facebook it can for example be difficult to distinguish between one’s private and public persona. At a ‘conventional’ youth club there are clear boundaries – start and finish times, acceptable use of language and how workers engage with young people, and overall group accountability. These boundaries blur, however, when they transfer to the digital world. Workers need to take extra care to ensure they don’t inadvertently make personal information available to young people that could leave them open to false accusations, misinterpretation, or even the possibility of cyber-bullying.
They have no real choice about engaging with the technology because that is where young people are. But it is essential they protect their reputations, so they are always above reproach in these areas. They should also set standards in e-safety, acting as a role model for their young people to follow.
In the Second World War, posters insisted that ‘Careless talk cost lives’. A nationwide campaign warned the public against loose talk and the dangers of unwittingly revealing information to the enemy. Today on Facebook careless talk is everywhere. We say where we live and when we are going on holiday. Also, unless we change our privacy settings, information from our personal profiles may be available on search engines such as Google. Some dangers are obvious – we are more likely to be burgled. But what else should we be doing to remain safe on line?
Youth workers need to take special care in managing both their personal Facebook profile alongside a church Facebook site. They should:
- Adjust their Facebook privacy settings to help protect their identities. Familiarise themselves with how Facebook works and not just learn how to search for friends. Click on the Account tab and ensure appropriate Account Settings and Privacy Settings. Know what is in the’ Help centre’, especially the sections about Internet safety and the ’Report abuse’ section.
- Use custom settings in setting up their profiles. Remember that Facebook has – as a default option – that all information can be shared.
- Avoid personal profile information appearing in search engines by changing privacy settings for applications and websites.
- Have the church, youth workers, young people and parents agree a written protocol for the church social networking group. For example, Facebook’s minimum age for joining is 13. Agree to abide by its own rules, so only those over that age should join the church group on the site. The protocol should also include any other behaviour expected of young people while on line.
- To improve accountability, add to the protocol the behaviour expected of youth workers, for example they should not communicate with their young people after a certain watershed time in the evening.
- Help young people with their privacy settings, ensuring personal details are kept private. Make sure they know how to report any concerns they have while online e.g. ‘Click CEOP Internet Safety’ button.
- Add the ‘Click CEOP Internet Safety’ button to their profile.
- Make young people understand that if they accept ‘friends’ on Facebook, they in turn have access to their ‘friends’’ friends, too. Ensure that the protocol covers this. In some churches youth workers have two Facebook ‘profiles’, one personal and one for use with the church.
- If workers don’t have a separate Facebook profile, suggest they set them up using the ‘Like’ application, so that they have a presence and share certain information e.g. about youth meetings, without the same functionality as a full profile.
- Alternatively, consider sorting friends into lists, allowing contacts to be separated into difference groups. Privacy settings may then be used to differentiate what is shared, and with whom.
If youth workers don’t follow these guidelines they may easily find themselves in compromising situations. Parents may, for example, be most upset if they discover the male youth worker is ‘talking’ through Facebook, at midnight, to their 15 year-old daughter on the computer in her bedroom. Even more seriously, the worker in this case risks being accused of the criminal offence of grooming.
Developing an online social etiquette for young people and youth workers should enhance accountability, and should also ensure that those young people will not need a new identity in adulthood. We also need to recognise the dangers of what is called ‘over sharing’, or revealing too much information. It is nice to receive birthday congratulations from ‘friends’ through Facebook. But they can only do so if that date of birth has been made public, thereby making identity theft easier.
Helping young people stay safe online
To help young people enjoy the Internet safely, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) has developed the ‘Click Clever Click Safe Code’. This is an everyday reminder of good practice, which helps children avoid common risks online. The Code encourages young people to:
- Zip It – keep your personal information private and think about what you say and do online.
- Block It – block people who send you nasty messages and don’t open unknown links and attachments.
- Flag It – flag up with someone you trust if anything upsets you or if someone asks to meet you offline.
Churches should do more. Youth workers should help young people use Facebook safely by getting them to:
- Think carefully about who they allow to become their ‘friends’. Once they have accepted someone, they will be able to access any information about them (including photographs) that they have marked as viewable by those friends. They should remember that friends may be removed at any time.
- Show ‘limited friends’ a cut-down version of their profiles, which can be useful for associates who do not require full friend status.
- Don’t start with everything accessible, but disable all the options and open them one by one. This means thinking carefully about how Facebook should be used. If it’s only to keep in touch with people then perhaps the more exotic applications are unnecessary.
- Posting or sending nude photographs or sexually suggestive poses of oneself or friends (often referred to as ‘sexting’) is, sadly, a popular pastime among young people. However, if any of the people posing are under 18, it may lead to criminal charges relating to indecent images of children being brought against both the sender of the photographs and their recipients.
In safeguarding children society has moved full circle, from warning parents of ‘stranger danger’ in the 1960’s to recognising today that most child abuse is perpetrated by people known to them. Today there is another, more insidious, stranger danger. This is to believe that our Facebook contacts are our friends, when in reality we have never physically met them. This is fine if they remain in cyber space but many young people want to meet their new online contacts. One way youth workers can help young people in this circumstance is to offer to accompany them on that first meeting.
For many, sharing personal information is exactly why they join Facebook. But potential dangers abound, and youth workers need to remain circumspect and to maintain appropriate professional boundaries. Share with young people by all means – but only sufficient information as is appropriate. We are still getting used to the power of social networking sites. Wisdom is needed. As ever, the Bible helps us and to my mind there has never been a more appropriate application of Proverbs 2:6 and 9–11 than with Facebook: ‘For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding… Then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.’
Further information from:
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) and organisations such as Childnet International can help with resources and training. CCPAS is a partner agency with CEOP and a member of the UKCCIS.
Simon Bass is the CEO of CCPAS (The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service). Article first published in Youthwork Magazine November 2010. Permission given to republish by @martinsaunders