For some time now experts have been warning about the dangers of social network sites and how some teenagers are being manipulated into situations they cannot handle by the people they are chatting to. Studies show that teenagers are often happy to provide their personal information to complete strangers.

Many adolescents feel in control of the situation when they are on the net; they can log on and off when they want, answer a question in their own time and say things they wouldn’t say in a face to face situation. The internet seems safe because it is anonymous, removed from reality and there is no emotional investment.

Unfortunately, Sydney teenager Nona Belomesoff, found out that making new friends on the social networking site Facebook is anything but safe. She was allegedly lured to her death by a man who fabricated his Facebook profile. Claiming to work for WIRES, Christopher James Dannevig then invited her to an overnight camp to study wildlife.

Mr Belmosesoff (Nona’s brother) said ”he said he worked there and he could get her a job, she loved animals and saw this as an opportunity to follow her dream.” Her in experience of real life and a misplaced trust in the internet led her to believe the alleged words of Dannevig.

Author and Generation Next speaker Maggie Hamilton says “girls may not realise they are being carefully groomed to do things they had no intention of doing when their cyber relationship began”.

NSW Premier Kristina Keneally agreed “No matter what our age … we should be careful of the people who we meet online and not assume that they are who they represent themselves to be.”

Unfortunately many young people still seem unaware of the predators that trawl the internet looking for vulnerable teenagers who have not yet had enough experience in the world to realise the dangers of befriending people over the internet.

Also many people, teenagers and parents alike, are not aware of the changed privacy settings on Facebook which automatically publishes previously private information and has now made formerly default private settings public. Users now have to change 50 different settings to stop the site from sharing private information with third parties. They have to consciously choose not to accept the new “Instant personalisation” feature.

Social media strategist Laurel Papworth said” Sometimes people see the message [about the new settings] on their screen, and they click OK without fully understanding that the message Facebook told them about changing their settings … to these new default settings.”

It is important for parents and guardians to be aware of their teenagers activities on the internet and keep the lines of communication open, Papworth says “the first thing parents should say is, ‘I’m not going to take your Facebook access away. I want you to know that if you see anything on Facebook that you don’t like or you are worried about or anybody contacts you or anything, I want you to come and talk to me about it.’

In an unparalleled move, Police in Australia have urged users to remove photos of themselves from their profiles. Det Supt Peter Crawford of Taskforce Argos, the unit which hunts online predators, said “I don’t think kids need to have a profile photograph on the internet”.

Facebook, via their head offices in the USA, issued a statement saying “This case serves as a painful reminder that all Internet users must use extreme caution when contacted over the Internet by people they do not know.”

“We echo the advice of the Police, who urge people not to meet anyone they have been contacted by online unless they know for certain who they are, as there are unscrupulous people in the world with malevolent agendas,” the statement concluded.

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha