Social-networking sites have become hugely popular, but how safe are they – and in particular, for children? Here’s how to ensure everything remains good clean fun.

This article appears in the September 06 issue of PC Advisor, which is available now in all good newsagents.

Things were simpler when we were growing up. Children took road-safety tips from a man with a green cross on his jumpsuit – and Charlie the talking cat warned them not to speak to strangers.

These days, keeping youngsters safe is a lot more daunting. It’s no longer just the shadowy figure hanging around the sweet shop that parents have to be concerned about. The internet, an endless treasure trove of information, choice and free speech, is a portal enabling predators to operate undetected.

Concerned parents can ban access to certain websites, but it’s often the innocuous-looking sites that pose the biggest problems. Social-networking sites in particular seem vulnerable to exploitation – and, worryingly, are becoming increasingly popular.

With a devoted fan base of teenagers and young adults, social-networking sites allow registered users to create their own web page and decorate it with their likes and preferences, including photos, in a bid to meet like-minded people online. The casual, open format, encouraging users to express themselves, has contributed to the success of these websites, especially with younger audiences.

Let’s take a look at one of the biggest success stories in this field. MySpace.com, which started only in 2004, now ranks as one of the internet’s most popular sites – and in the US has managed to outstrip Google. It has a worldwide audience of 73 million registered users and an estimated 250,000 more joining each day. The popularity of this type of site looks set to increase, with big industry names getting in on the act: Microsoft has launched MSN Spaces and Yahoo has an offering called 360.

Knowing the risks

Appealing though these sites may be, they’re not without risks. You never know who you’re dealing with – none of the details submitted at registration are verified.

MySpace is restricted to those who are at least 14 years old, but no checks are carried out. This makes using a fictitious identity easy, which has drawn the attention of paedophiles and stalkers. Two men were charged in the US earlier this year for assaulting young girls they met on MySpace.

If you are unfamiliar with social-networking sites, it’s worth doing your homework and visiting www.thinkuknow.co.uk for advice, or to report abuse.

We recommend reading any safety tips supplied by the sites themselves. But the best way of protecting teenagers is by ensuring the line of communication between parent and child is good, that kids understand the golden rule: never give out personal details. In particular, they should steer clear of giving information that could be used to identify their location, such as the name of their school.

While many enjoy the casual friendships created on these sites, there’s no denying safeguards are needed to protect the most vulnerable. Part of the problem with social networking is that the moniker ‘friend’ is banded about a little too casually. At times like these, it pays to know who your friends are.