The benefits of social networking are undeniable, but we often overlook their hazards, particularly for children. But by getting involved in your child's social networking, you can teach them how to remain safe.
Social networks can be great fun and a powerful force for good. They have contributed significantly to popular culture, disaster relief and even political change.
But as anyone can sign up to a social network, it will inevitably attract a small minority of users who want to promote extreme or unsavoury views, or who have abusive or criminal intentions. So, although the vast majority of users are respectable, it's important to take precautions.
Too much information
Maintaining privacy is one of the biggest considerations. We live in a celebrity culture where you become 'someone' by displaying yourself to the world. So youngsters can fall for peer pressure and disclose more about themselves than is wise to the wrong people - without realising the risks.
They can also casually link up with huge numbers of supposed 'friends', who in reality are completely unknown to them. This can have serious consequences. For example, after a teenager posted an invitation to her birthday party on a social networking site, 50 uninvited strangers turned up and trashed the family home.
Information your child posts can remain on a site for much longer than you might think, and can be leaked through inadequate site security. Sometimes this can have adverse consequences. People have been sacked or lost job opportunities because of old postings on social networks.
Your child's safety
Children are usually quite astute when it comes to judging whether someone they meet face to face is okay. But, the very nature of a social networking site (not being able to see the person or hear their voice, for example) makes the decision much more difficult. So your child could innocently connect with users that might bully or otherwise harass them.
A very small number of social networkers may be sexual predators masquerading as children or teenagers. They try to get accepted by 'grooming' a child using their false persona, and then gradually progress to more and more intimate interaction, such as asking for photos, webcam sessions or meetings.
The CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) works across the UK to tackle the sexual abuse of children. It offers advice to parents, young people and children as well as using its law enforcement powers to track and bring offenders to account either directly or in partnership with local and international police forces.
It handles around 600 reports a month, of which around one in five is urgent - such as children making arrangements to meet strangers they have previously only communicated with online. That's a tiny proportion of the daily total of social networking activity, but it's still a significant risk because of the seriousness of the potential consequences.
The CEOP now has an emergency button on most social networking sites, so you and your child have a way to report suspect contacts and find out more about the problem.
Bullying and unsavoury content
But by far the most common form of abuse on social networking sites is peer bullying. Many people lose their normal self-restraint once they feel anonymous and remote from others.
This is clearly seen in the phenomenon of 'road rage', and the same occurs quite often on social networks, particularly between youngsters. Minor disagreements may escalate into really nasty persistent personal attacks - occasionally severe enough to drive the victim to suicide.
This is a general cultural problem on the web - there's an established tradition of 'trolling' - viciously insulting people you disagree with on discussion sites.
The remaining significant threat is unsavoury content. Some of this may be pornographic, but the majority is best described as 'gross' (gory images and videos or sadistic jokes) or illegal (content advocating drugs and criminal activities). Peer pressure, particularly among teenagers, often encourages the consumption and exchange of such material.
All these threats make social networking seem like a minefield. But the picture is not as black as it seems, provided you ensure your child understands the risks - which are primarily social, not technical.
Ideally, using social networking should be social within the home as well as online. You should participate in and guide your child's activities on the site. So initially, you can ensure your child's profile and postings contain nothing that might expose their identity or whereabouts, or that might have adverse consequences for them in the future.
But from then on, it's important to teach your child to understand the real meaning of both privacy and friendship, and to help them develop the necessary foresight and self-restraint to resist peer pressure and unconsidered impulse.
You should ideally go through the site's terms and conditions, explaining them to your child in simple practical terms - it's important you both understand them.
But most importantly, you must equip your child with the skills to decide who to trust, even in the absence of face-to-face subliminal cues, and the knowledge of what constitutes a real friend. Together, they will provide the greatest overall protection against threats on social networks.