Facebook Places is the newest app for Smartphone users that allows you to mark your current location on planet Earth. Similar to Gowalla or FourSquare, this geo-location service allows you to “check in” at a location and broadcast that information to other Places users. Not only can you tag yourself at a current location, but your Facebook friends can tag you as well. Whether you check in yourself or are tagged by someone else, your physical location is published on your Facebook newsfeed for all your network to see.
For many, the appeal of apps like Places is that it is a facilitator of what Facebook calls “serendipitous meetings.” By checking in on Places you can be notified when your friend is only a block away, or you can let your friends know when you are hanging out at the park.
The Fear of Predators
Facebook Places is not an automatic tracker, broadcasting your location at all times. It only says where you are when you “check in” or are tagged by someone else. So what’s the fear?
Since the creation of geo-location services, parents and Internet safety experts alike have been concerned about whether this could give sexual predators an edge on tracking down their victims. The answer, of course, is yes. Children have been known to disclose their locations to strangers online (through chat rooms, e-mail, etc.), resulting in classic instances of kidnapping. The same could happen with Facebook Places.
However, the vast majority of sexual predation cases are not like this. According to research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, most predators take time to develop “friendships” with their victims. The vast majority of cases do not involve any forcible kidnapping or abduction, but rather “willing” victims who have been groomed through a process of emotional manipulation, sympathy, and flattery.
Only 5% of predators attempt to deceive their victims by saying they are their peers, and the majority are actually open with their victims about their sexual intentions in their online communications. Most cases involve multiple forms of contact with the minor (online communications, telephone, sending gifts or money, etc.). In about half of predator cases, investigators describe victims as being “in love” with or having feelings of close friendship toward the offenders. Most victims meet with offenders more than once, some even choosing to live with them for a period of time.
The more likely danger is not a child being kidnapped by disclosing their location on Facebook Places, but a child using Facebook Places to arrange a meeting with a predator who has been grooming them. This means proactive parents should not merely be concerned about disabling Facebook Places on their child’s cell phone. Parents should be more concerned about whether their kids or their kids’ friends are susceptible to grooming.
In general, teens most at risk are those who are willing to talk about sex online, post seductive pictures of themselves or others, or openly express an interest in romance. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, those most vulnerable to predation are:
- Teens with poor relationships with parents – “Adolescent girls who report a high degree of conflict with their parents, boys who report low parental monitoring, and adolescents of both sexes who are troubled with depression and related problems are more likely than other youth to form close online relationships with people they meet online.”
- Teens suffering from loneliness and depression – “Young teens who are lonely or depressed or who have difficult relationships with their parents may be more vulnerable to harmful effects of Internet-initiated sexual relationships with adults, as well as to the relationships themselves.”
- Teen boys who are gay or questioning – “Such youth, using the Internet to seek out contacts and information about homosexuality and sexual orientation, may be vulnerable to adults online who initiate sexual relationships in the guise of helping teens sort out these issues.”
Many predator prevention efforts today still primarily target parents. The problem with this approach is that the most vulnerable teens in the U.S. do not have healthy relationships with their parents to begin with. As a parent, one of the most helpful things you can do to combat this problem is to teach your kids to be advocates for those who are vulnerable. Often teens who are being groomed will confide in their friends about their online interactions. Teach your kids to protect their friends by revealing what they know to the proper authorities.
If you have questions about the grooming process or suspect your child might be a target, call the Cyber Tipline at 1-800-843-5678.
Changing Your Facebook Settings
As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you are concerned that your child might misuse Facebook Places, remove this application from their phone. If you feel you cannot monitor their use of this app successfully, it is better to do without it.
You should also take time to make sure others cannot tag your child’s location using Facebook Places. Here’s a step-by-step guide to changing your child’s Facebook setttings:
- Check in to your child’s Facebook account.
- Go to the upper right hand corner and click on the “Account” menu. Click on “Privacy Settings.”
- Under “Sharing on Facebook” click the “Custom” link, and then click “Customize Settings” in the next pane.
- Look under “Things I Share” to find “Places I check in.” Set this to “Only Me.” You can also customize this further to only share this with specific people.
- Also under “Things I share” is “Include me in ‘People Here Now’ after I check in.” Uncheck “Enable” to turn this off.
- Look under “Things others share” and find “Friends can check me into Places.” Check “Disable.”
If you are adjusting your children’s settings, use the time as an opportunity to teach them about online privacy. What other notifications can people see on your child’s Facebook account? Is it only their friends who can see their information? What can their friends’ friends see? Use Facebook’s other privacy settings to prevent people from finding personal information you believe is important to hide.
 Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, and Kimberly Mitchell, “Internet-initiated Sex Crimes Against Minors: Implications for Prevention Based on Findings from a National Study,” Journal of Adolescent Health 35, no. 5 (2004), http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/NJOV_info_page. htm (accessed June 24, 2010).