Keeping it safe and social

Aug. 25, 2013 @ 04:09 PM

It’s all right for sex offenders to join social networking sites on the Internet.

So ruled the N.C. Court of Appeals last week in the case of Lester Gerrard Packingham. As The Herald-Sun’s Beth Velliquette reported, Packingham was charged and convicted in Durham County of accessing a commercial social networking Web site. He had violated a North Carolina statute that prohibits registered sex offenders from joining Facebook and other similar sites.

We can’t argue that, as the court ruled, the statute tends to violate the spirit of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. However, it’s arguable whether Facebook – a private service hosted on corporately-owned and operated computers – really counts as a true public forum where the First Amendment should always apply.

The unique character of Facebook, a wide-ranging social network that allows teens and adults alike to connect with friends, new and old, makes it somewhat open to abuse.

As an example, in Packingham’s case, he had created a profile under the assumed name of “J.R. Gerard.” Most he might try to befriend through Facebook wouldn’t know he had been convicted in 2006 of taking indecent liberties with a child.

Facebook tries to shut down fake profiles – even parody profiles – if they find out about them. But it took law enforcement investigators to nab Packingham in this ruse.

If the court ruling stands, then it’s imperative for parents of children who use Facebook and other social networking sites to make sure they’re not in the dark about who their children connect with online and set limits on those activities.

As we kick off the traditional school year, it’s a good time to refresh ourselves about some social media safety tips. Facebook even offers advice specifically for parents who want to protect teens 13 to 17 who use the site to share accomplishments and communicate with friends.

Teens can use the View As tool on their timelines, as an example, to see what their page looks like to the general public. Facebook also added protections and security settings to keep teen timelines and posts from showing up in search results.

It’s probably not a bad idea to start your own page and connect with your child so that you’re aware of who they interact with and how, but Facebook also cautions you to treat those interactions like you would in real life and think about it before chiming in on a discussion amongst teens.

“Think of social media as a get-together at one of your child’s friends’ houses,” the Facebook primer recommends. “You can give permission for your teen to attend, and even though you won’t be there to monitor their behavior, you trust your teen to have good judgment around peers and other parents. It’s all about balancing your teen’s growing independence and need for privacy with your safety concerns.”
And if your child encounters anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable or harasses them, be certain that they know to come to you and report their concerns.