THE explosion of social networking websites has redefined how we communicate with each other. Alongside this, however, are the emerging dangers posed by such websites to young people.
The very nature of such sites means that it is getting more and more difficult to keep our private information private. As a result, such websites have become a magnet for predators who can use the personal information submitted by young people to target them.
With Facebook having a user base greater than that of the European Union, the potential for danger is very concerning indeed.
How safe are young people online? Not very. All the major social networking websites state that users must be aged 13 or over to use their site. To start with, this is a very low age considering some of the content published on these sites. Most parents would consider the content in question to be only suitable for adults. It is clear, that such content would only be restricted to over 18-year-olds if it was on a DVD.
More worryingly however is the fact that it is also possible for a child under 13 to gain access to a site like Facebook. All they have to do is state they are 13 or over. None of the social networking sites I reviewed did any background checks whatsoever on new users. This means that children from any age could potentially be targeted by online predators. Facebook simply has no mechanism in place to prevent under 13-year-olds from viewing this content.
Another major problem with most social networking sites is that they rely primarily on the use of reporting mechanisms to ensure online safety. In essence, this system requires other users of the website to police it for the administrators.
This system is totally ineffective. If a user has been reported and their profile has been deleted, there is nothing to prevent that user from simply creating a new profile minutes later.
Furthermore, the nature of social networking sites mean that the young person is encouraged to display personal information about themselves, as well as photographs and video content. All of this makes it easier for predators to contact young people through mediums such as text and email. Then it is much harder for family and friends to be aware of what's going on.
These dangers were illustrated in a recent case which my firm, Hilary Carmichael Solicitors, have become involved with. A concerned parent contacted the firm to advise that his 12-year-old daughter had been posting sexually inappropriate images of herself on Facebook.
The profile showed that the young girl had more than 400 friends, many of whom were adult males and who had links to inappropriate content.
All of these 400 individuals had access to the young girls contact information and it was believed the young girl had received messages to her mobile phone.
In order to ensure the young girl was removed from harm, the firm immediately applied to Belfast's High Court to obtain an injunction forcing Facebook to delete the profile in question. The proceedings are still ongoing but one of the elements of the case is that Facebook must ensure that the girl does not create any future accounts with the site.
If you you are concerned about online privacy issues, the first thing to do is ensure that your profile settings are restricted to only those people you know and trust. If you are a parent and are aware that your child has posted personal information online which may compromise his or her safety you should immediately contact the administrators of the website in question and ask them to review your child's account. You should ask them to disclose to you if any dangerous activities have taken place so that you can decide what to do next.
If you find that the website is not taking your concerns seriously you should contact a solicitor who can advise you in relation to injunction proceedings.
Hilary Carmichael is a Northern Ireland solicitor