A 2016 report by Pew Research Center finds that 69% of the American public uses some type of social media, compared to 5% in 2005. 73% of teens were reportedly on social media in 2015 and this number is bound to be even higher today. Social media connectivity undoubtedly offers many potential benefits from connecting with peers to accessing educational content. Equally relevant are concerns about the safety, privacy and behaviour of teens online. While behaviour, ethics and online time management of teens are subjective and vary with the beliefs, practices and opinions of the parents vis-à-vis teens, privacy and safety are more objective topics. There is thus constant course corrections in opinions, beliefs and actions by parents, lawmakers and advocates in issues of online safety and privacy of teens online.
A joint study by Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet Society found that many teenagers extensively share personal information online - 91% post photos of themselves, 71% post their school name 53 % post email address and 20 % post their cell phone number. The panicked parent may derive solace from a comfortingly contradictory finding in the same report that teenagers are also more aware of and cautious about who sees this information - 60 % of teen Facebook users set their profiles to private (friends only), and 56 % find it easy to set privacy controls – negating the worries of 72% of parents who reportedly lacked confidence on the ability of their wards to manage their social network privacy and reputation.
The severe inconsistency in perception of privacy awareness among teens is not surprising – the concept of “privacy paradox” has been the building block of the panoptic web of social media that provides “constant view of individuals through parasocietal mechanisms that influence behavior simply because of the possibility of being observed.” It is believed that teens worry more about social privacy than the privacy risks posed by third parties, in contrast to the reverse penchant for an adult.
While there is now increasing awareness of and hence established defense protocols to protect against overt dangers of social media such as bullying and trolling, the silent perils of social media for youngsters remain to be tackled. These include hacking by inimical elements and phishing. Setting parental controls on computers and websites is very effective for younger children, but it gets dicey with teens because such controls can be perceived as (and in fact be) stifling for the youngster. Besides, parental controls may be ineffective for adolescents, 67% of whom, according to Pew, know how to hide what they do online from parents, and 10% have unlocked parental controls soon after they were setup.
Instead of hovering over the teenager and smothering her, it is the duty of every digital parent to educate her on the perils of social networking. The following common-sense precautions must be taught before the child enters any social media site, to protect her against the subtle dangers that lurk.
- Password protection: The teen must be taught to zealously guard his/her password. It is very easy for a teen to share her password with a supposed best friend, who may not be careful with it. That said, it is up to the parent and teen to decide if the parent can know the password of the child’s account. The line between safety, monitoring and spying is fine and subjective and the parent and child must decide the scheme that works for them. When a particular account has been hacked, it is essential that passwords to all sites the teen uses are changed as well, to avoid further damage.
- Privacy setting: It is best if the teen chooses a privacy setting that excludes strangers while allowing a trusted set of people in. Most social networking sites have easy ways to set the privacy limits and both parent and teen must work together to arrive at a setting with which they both are comfortable and feel safe.
- Pruning the contact list: While three and four digit numbers of contacts on social media sites may give the teen a sense of importance and popularity, the list can become dangerously unwieldy. While the entire human clan may be reached within six steps of contacts, it is unnecessary to go beyond one degree for practical purposes. It could potentially be dangerous to contact someone online that one does not know in person.
- Unusual message: If a message sounds unusual from a contact, it probably is. It is essential to confirm with the contact before responding or acting on the unusual message even from someone known.
- URL/email authentication: The teen must be taught to check the URL before signing up into any service. Near-identical addresses are often used by phishing sites. The teen must also be taught to check for the “https” start to websites that ask for sensitive information such as credit card numbers. Other markers of phishing sites are – legitimate company names spelt slightly differently, poor grammar or spelling in the site content etc, detection of all of which requires more than just a cursory glance. Similarly, an email asking for sensitive information, but arriving from a generic email id must be handled with care.
- Updation of security software: This is self-explanatory. All malware/virus detection software must be updated periodically to catch hackers before they hack.
- WWGS Rule – The teen must be informed of the permanence of information posted on social media sites. They must be taught to think twice before posting anything online. “What Will Grandma Say” rule is good to remember for social media postings.
(Here’s an excellent resource, courtesy ExpressVPN, on Instagram privacy settings)
We have come a long way already since the advent of social media in the late 1990s. With the digital immigrant parent growing more conversant with social media over the years, teenage children are being better guided on privacy and responsibility in social media than before – today, 94% of parents talk to their teen about what is appropriate for them to share online. Mark Zuckenberg’s 2010 allegation of the end of the “social norm” of privacy, is already being falsified by the growing number of youngsters who are conscious of privacy issues in social media sites. A recent report shows that young people are un-tagging pictures, writing false posts (“vague-booking” notwithstanding) and even adopting parallel identities to keep their personal information safe. Such positive moves could be hastened and encouraged by active participation of the parent in the youngster’s online and offline life. The co-participation of the parent and youngster in social media will undoubtedly build better trust between the parent and child and help the youngster navigate social networking responsibly.
Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip researcher & parent in touch with the latest digital trends constantly striving to make online experiences safe.
Mobicip is the creator of the most powerful and extensive internet safety software for tablets, smartphones and computers in households today. Learn more at www.mobicip.com.