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Social Networking - Introduction

Social software (sometimes known as ‘Web 2’) provides new opportunities for personal expression, the creation of communities, collaboration and sharing and is widely used for both business and leisure activities. Examples include;

  • blogs (personal web-based journals)
  • moblogs (blogs sent from a mobile phone)
  • wikis (modifiable collaborative web pages)
  • podcasting (subscription-based broadcast over the web)
  • social networking sites.

the most popular social networking site by far is Facebook. Ofcom research from 2008 shows that just over one fifth (22 per cent) of adult internet users aged 16+ and almost half (49 per cent) of children aged 8-17 who use the internet have set up their own profile on a social networking site.  The research shows that social networking is very popular with younger users, but also reveals that some are by-passing age restrictions to set up profiles. For example, although the minimum age for most major social networking sites is typically 13 (14 on MySpace), 27 per cent of 8-11 year olds who are aware of social networking say that they have a profile on a site.

Benefits

Social networking sites encourage people to be creative users of the internet, publishing and uploading content rather than being passive consumers. They can express themselves online, chat, discuss and socialize with peers, and share multimedia content such as music, photos and video clips with others.

Issues and risks

These sites can present some risks if not used safely and responsibly.  The biggest risks are to do with content (what users can upload and download, how appropriate it is and its permanency) and contact (who it is users are communicating with and their intentions.)

Most social networking sites contain privacy settings, allowing a profile to be set to private and only viewed by approved contacts, but these are not usually default and are often complicated to use. One of the big draws of social networking sites is the large numbers of ‘virtual’ friends that can be linked from a profile, but this competitive edge can expose children and young people to the risks of unwelcome contact.  A further issue is the amount of time that users may spend on social networking sites to the detriment of real-life relationships.

How can we minimise the risks?

Discussing issues with users including; abiding by age restrictions, the importance of privacy online, and making use of privacy settings. A good principle is to only allow access to friends known in the ‘real world’ and know who to speak to if they experience any problems online.

Schools

Every school will have an individual approach to social networking access.  Some schools may wish to block access to social networking sites during class time to prevent wasting of time, some because they do not feel that eSafety education is embedded enough with their pupils.  However some schools may want to allow access to support learning and teaching and the eSafety curriculum.  A school’s approach to this issue should be reflected in their acceptable use / eSafety policy.