My oldest niece is twelve. That means that in less than a year, she'll be able to sign up for stuff without parental permission.
Being the geeky uncle i am, i figured i should let her know what to expect.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
- Listen first
- Know your friends.
- Nothing is private.
- Stay on guard.
- Don't feed the trolls.
- Create more than you consume.
Right, so what the heck do i mean by all that?
Back when the internet was young and dinosaurs used it to discredit the threat of asteroids, folks used to encourage newcomers to “lurk before you leap”. It was kind of like walking into a room full of conversations. It's polite to walk up to a group and listen to what they're talking about for a while before talking. Think of it this way. You and some of your classmates are in the middle of a conversation about martial arts techniques. You're debating the effectiveness of various holds and stances when a little kid comes up and starts talking about how some dogs are brown. Yeah, it might be cute, but if that kid keeps doing it, things get annoying really fast.
Don't be that little kid.
Read older posts from folks. Listen to what they're talking about (for a few days at least). Listen to how they present themselves. Find out what they find funny or interesting. If it's something that you also find interesting, ask good questions and be respectful. More importantly, if they tend to talk about stuff that makes you angry or scared, say nothing and just walk away.
Lurking keeps you from saying something stupid or from drawing unwanted attention. That's the value of lurking.
Know your friends
On a similar note, all these new, spiffy social sites want to be your friend. Heck, they'll even point out lots of other people who want to be your friend. Folks like the girl you met last summer. Or maybe some boy in your class. Or that creepy guy down by the bus station. Or the woman with 15 cats who screams at her television about communists, Or even someone you've never heard of. It will be tempting to add them all. Everyone likes friends, right? What harm can that do?
Actually, a lot. See the problem is that those people get access to your information. Not just your address and phone numbers, but who you like to hang out with, where you like to go, what your friends are talking about and everything else. i'm sure folks have already talked about the scary stuff, but it can also be a lot more subtle than that.
Imagine that there's a company that sells squid ink soda (now with extra ink). There are a few ways that they can get you to buy a can of carbonated squid ink. They could run ads with celebrities, or cute cartoons of killer whale families, or big signs in Times Square. Those all work, but what's even more effective is to get your friends to tell you how much they love coming home and cracking open a can of fizzy squid juice.
Now, let's say that they create a video featuring their mascot, Squiddo, playing with a kitten. It makes you laugh, and you see a Like button. Sure, you think, i'll click that button and share that info to my friends. Actually, you're doing more than that. When you click that button or become a fan of Squid Ink Soda, they get to see your info, as well as who you're friends with. Suddenly, you may see ads featuring friends and schoolmates next to cans of Squid Ink. You start thinking, “Huh, everybody must like Squid Ink soda. i should try a can.”
What's more, they may start seeing your picture as well and start thinking the same thing. Maybe they go out and buy cans of Squid Ink Soda because they like and trust you. Then they try a can, realize that it's absolutely revolting and think you're an idiot for getting them to drink that awful crap.
Your personal information and friends are really, really valuable. That's why all these sites and companies want it. That's why it's really, really hard to get that info back out of most of these services. Fortunately, you can turn a lot of this stuff off, provided you know how or be a little drastic, or are willing to dig through all the settings and check frequently for new ones. Treat that info like you would a pile of gold coins or gems you have hidden in a cave. Don't just tell everyone about it or you won't have any.
Let's also say that in 5 years or so, you want to go get a part-time job. You put on your best professional clothes and head over for the screening interview. They greet you, sit you down and run a background check on you. That's when they found that you've been friends for 5 years with some kids that recently stole money from work or have a drug habit. Suddenly, you're a potential trouble maker and maybe you should consider looking for work somewhere else.
Colleges are also looking at stuff like social connections as well. Some folks are even demanding that before they hire you, you hand over your login and password so that they can check any private messages you've gotten. (i'll note that this is legal, but questionable and there are a few court cases pending about this, but for now, employers and schools are within their rights to ask for it.)
Nothing is Private
That touches on one of the key things. Nothing online is ever private. If you put something on the Internet, it's public and forever. Facebook is particularly bad at this because they have a habit of resetting your privacy to be more public. That aside, even personal messages can be made public by bad hackers or by bad security on a site.
The rule of thumb i use is: Never say anything online unless you're comfortable telling every human being that. There's a lot of things i don't say online (and i'm a fairly public person on the Internet). If you feel like you're going to burst unless you tell someone something, i understand. i frequently write messages to no one and then send them straight to the trashcan.
Even if someone absolutely promises to never, ever tell anyone or share something you gave them because you will kill them if it ever gets out, if you send it over the internet, it's gotten out. Some people lie and post it. Others aren't as careful and it's stolen. Sadly, a lot of folks don't think that way, thus why there are lots of embarrassing photos taken from camera phones that are all over the internet.
If you have to talk to someone to tell them something important, get up, go to that person and tell them to their face. If you can't do that, call them. If you can only talk to them via the internet, let me know and i'll show you how to do it safely, but understand that once that message is in their hands, it's fair game to go on the internet.
Stay on guard
i'd love not to have to tell you this, but you're a girl. Hang on, it's not what you think. i'd love to tell you that the Internet is full of smart folks who don't care if you're a boy or girl or a dog with very good typing skills, but it's not true. There's a group of people that are awful. They're nasty, creepy, and really don't care about you at all, or even worse, want to take advantage of you.
Just like how you can't always predict who the nice person will be, crappy people come from all walks. If you saw them on the street you'd think they were pillars of society, or punks, or sweet little old grandma's. It's always a good idea to be a little suspicious. Be courteous, but always be ready to say “No” or call the authorities.
If it sounds like too good to be true, it's a trap. Always ask why a person or company wants something from you. Know that when you use something like Facebook, you're not the customer, you're what's being sold.
So, why is being a girl important? Partly because, as a girl, you're really sensitive toward emotion and social stuff. (That's normal, by the way, and the product of a few million years of evolution.) It means that you like to talk to people and try to think of how others might react to something you say. Sadly, a lot of folks aren't as in tune with that and are jerks. This will make you angry. It will make you cry. It will make you want to curl up in the corner of your closet until the planet is consumed by the sun.
At least it will if you've not been careful. i won't lie and say that it will never happen, but when it does, you'll be able to deal with it a lot better. Basically, don't let the Internet get to you.
Don't feed the trolls.
There are exceptionally crappy people who enjoy making life miserable for other people. They look for how to push your buttons and get you screaming. They're very good at it. They might say things like how pugs are obviously brain damaged and that anyone who liked them obviously didn't care about dogs. They might say things like how the only good Marine is a dead Marine. Yeah, those are just light hearted teases compared to the kind of crap they normally say. These people are trolls.
They're looking to get you angry. They want to see you cry and fly out of control because that's uproariously funny to them. Because you're a girl, they'll pick and tease you relentlessly and make creepy comments, because they know it will make you cry. They feed off your fury and will keep pushing your buttons until you're absolutely insane with rage. When you reply to them, that feeds them and makes them want to continue abusing you. Don't feed the trolls.
When you see someone saying something offensive, ignore it. (Depending on how offensive it is, you might be able to flag it for someone else to look at and have that account shut down, but trolls will always come back.)
This is not to say that people who have different opinions than you are trolls. Just that if you feel yourself getting angry and provoked, you're probably being trolled. If you feel that's the case, stop talking. Let the troll say she won and ignore them. Let them do their little happy dance under whatever bridge they live, because it's the only highlight to their miserable existence. Eventually, if enough folks spot the troll and refuse to play along, the troll will leave.
(Again, power of lurking will often show trolls and show you who to avoid talking to.)
Create more than you Consume
By and large, though, the internet is not an awful place. It's kind of like the world. There are parts that are horrible, and other parts that are awesome. The parts that are really wonderful is usually stuff made by folks like yourself.
People write. They draw, they make films, they sing songs and you can see just how amazing people can be. Be original, create stuff that folks haven't seen or heard. Be inspired, read stories, find short movies on Youtube, giggle at pictures on CuteOverload and IcanHasCheezburger. Be aware that someone else may have created what you enjoy, and respect how they want to distribute it. Some creators may be open with their creations, like “Sita sings the Blues” and want it shared with everyone. Others (like most Hollywood movies and Recording Artists) want tight control over who gets to hear what they want you to hear, and that's fine too. If they don't want to share, it's their choice. Respect it like you'd respect your own stuff. If you're not sure, presume that they don't want to share. It's generally safer.
If you do share, realize that someone may copy it and claim it as their own. It happens. Ask them to not do that or call them out on it. Always be polite and professional, even if they're not. More importantly, if you keep making stuff, folks will know who the real creative person is.
That's about it for now. Like i said, we're trusting you on the Internet because we hope you're mature enough and smart enough to deal with it. Remember, the internet is full of people, both good and bad. Use your head, pick the choice that involves thinking about it harder, and you'll do fine.