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Privacy Issues, Identity Theft and Online Reputation Concerns

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 28th 2016

Social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace allow people to create mini websites that include information about themselves, their activities, their likes, their hobbies, photos, and other fun applications that illustrate their personalities. With these websites, people link their websites with others' websites, to become "friends." Friends can see one another's pages and can communicate publicly on one another's "walls" or public space on the site or through e-mail-like functions. Youth can also search for new friends through the site on the basis of mutually expressed interests.

Social network sites encourage widespread sharing of personal information among friends, who may update their pages to describe what they are doing multiple times a day. A consequence of this culture of sharing is that today's children do not feel the need to keep details of their lives private as have older generations. On many of these sites, only people youth accept as "friends" are allowed to see their pages, but many youth find pride in collecting as many "friends" as possible, often befriending 1,000 or more and rendering the distinction between friend and acquaintance non-existent.

Youth do not often think about the consequences associated with over-sharing personal information within social networks and blogs. Most adults would never hang out a giant public sign listing their name and personal information in the center of town for everyone to see, but today's children do not typically think twice about doing exactly this on the Internet. Children who are not careful about what personal information they share through Online social networking sites, blogs, posts, videos, picture mail, texts, and other communications, can make themselves vulnerable targets for unwanted and undesirable attention.

Youth can have their identities stolen, just like adults. If thieves get enough of the right data, they can open up credit accounts in children's names and run up large bills, which can result in years of financial headache for parents and children to deal, including undesirable financial consequences for children down the line such as difficulty obtaining student loans, renting an apartment, or establishing credit. As well, youth's over-sharing of private information can put families at risk for traditional theft such as home robberies, if, for example, a youth tweets or broadcasts on her blog that her family is visiting relatives out of state, the exact dates of the trip, and the family's address.

Children do not realize that a great deal of the Internet related posting they engage in is archived in some fashion or another and may remain searchable for years. It is this tendency of the Internet to become archived and to persist for years which gets some kids into trouble. Employers, private schools, and other activity directors search for candidate activity on social networking sites in an effort to try to learn the true character of those candidates before making admissions or hiring decisions. Embarrassing pictures with inappropriate captions including children's name, vulgar or crude descriptions of themselves or their interests, and culturally insensitive posted quotes, videos, and jokes can all damage a young person's reputation. As well, children sometimes will document their experimentation with tobacco, alcohol, or drugs in the form of text, photographs or video posted to social network and community websites. Children who do this sort of thoughtless documentation may find themselves removed from a school sports team or other extracurricular group when such incriminating evidence is brought to their school staff's attention.

It's important for parents to keep children's casualness towards privacy in perspective. Children's lack of privacy concern is partially due to inexperience and partially to a shift in culture, but also partially due to their immature developmental state. The part of the brain that makes decisions, reasons, and thinks through what the future consequences of particular actions may be is not fully developed until children are in their early 20s! It is not useful to hold children to a higher standard of awareness than they are capable of meeting. Instead, concerned parents can help children avoid mistakes by educating children as to the nature of the dangers they face.

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