Online Safety

Consider the following scenario: A teenage girl creates a Facebook profile and fills it with personal information, such as home address, birthday, telephone number, the name of her school and a list of school activities. Within weeks, this girl now has 500 “friends.” She never changed the Facebook privacy settings to block friends of friends from viewing her profile. Now, thousands of people, most of whom she does not know, can view her personal information, photos, videos and online conversations, making it easy for a stalker or sexual predator to track her movements.

For today’s teenagers and future generations, social media isn’t an exciting new tool—it’s simply how they communicate. But social media is relatively new and is fraught with risks. Teenagers, in particular, tend to share a lot of personal information online, which can expose them and their families to fraud, burglary and identity theft. They could also end up being sued for libel if they used their page on Facebook or on another social networking Web site to vent their anger at a teacher or fellow student. And embarrassing online photos or comments can keep them from landing that summer internship or getting into the college of their choice.

Recent studies have shown that young people are concerned about privacy and security, but are still willing to accept the risks associated with sharing personal information on social media sites.

A 2009 study of more than 7,000 college students at 29 American universities revealed that three-quarters were concerned with the security of passwords, Social Security numbers and credit card numbers, but were not concerned about sharing personal information on sites such as Facebook. These social networking sites were viewed as relatively private spaces by students, and the consequences were deemed insignificant. A 2005 study of 4,500 Carnegie Mellon students who use Facebook found that 90% of their profiles contained an image, 89% a real name, 88% a birth date, 51% a current address and 40% a telephone number.

Social Media Risk for Adults

But don’t think this is a problem just for teenagers and young people. Adults have online risk as well.

In 2008, a Washington woman posted in several online forums information about a hacker attack on a company that makes software used to track sales for adult-entertainment Web sites. She claimed that the personal information of the sites’ customers was compromised. Later, the software company, which contends that no consumer data were compromised, sued the woman for defamation.

Bloggers are increasingly getting sued or threatened with legal action for everything from defamation to invasion of privacy to copyright infringement. In 2007—the most recent data available—106 civil lawsuits against bloggers and others in social networks and online forums were tallied by the Citizen Media Law Project at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, up from just 12 in 2003.

Internet crime complaints increased by one-third from 2007 to 2008, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Nondelivery of merchandise and/or payment was the most frequently reported crime during that period. Credit/debit card fraud, computer fraud, identity theft and auction fraud were the other top crimes reported.

But there are steps you can take to help mitigate the risk while you and your family enjoy online activities:

  • Never give children unfettered access to the Web. “In the open only” access and proper filtering/monitoring software is important to help protect kids from online dangers. Parents also need to specifically educate their kids about predators, scammers and their techniques, especially if children are going to be on a computer at school or in someone else’s home.
  • Adults and children both need to exercise self-limiting behavior when it comes to the breadth of online contacts and information shared because what is said online becomes everyone’s business. Remind your family that there could be “friends” or “followers” that can steal their identity or money. While a classmate or coworker might be a trusted friend, there may be others living in their home with access to the computer who are less trustworthy. People should avoid being lulled by a false sense of intimacy among their Internet contacts, especially those they do not know personally.
  • Install proper firewall and antivirus software on the home computer. This software is absolutely critical and the first line of defense to help protect individuals from hackers and predators.
  • Consider a professional, holistic security consultation including an on/off-line assessment of the family’s security vulnerabilities. Some insurance carriers provide these consultations through external vendors as a value-added service to their customers.

To learn more:

Next: Evaluate your risk level by taking a brief risk assessment questionnaire.