Since there were no questions from readers this month, I got to choose a "safety" topic to discuss. I chose social media. I might be dating myself here, but way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and cassette tapes and VHS were still around, I thought ICQ and IRC were pretty amazing. Nowadays, we have YouTube, Pinterest, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and thousands more, with new social networks popping up all the time.
Social media may seem like an odd topic for a column about policing and safety, but social media platforms are playing an increasing role in police work. From how we connect with the citizens we serve (btw: if you're not already following me and my colleagues on Twitter, check us out @cqrcmp) to how we conduct investigations and the range of issues we get calls about, social media are as important to policing as they are to any other aspect of modern life. Social media gurus would say, "Embrace the technology." I don't disagree.
I've seen the value of social media in my work and personal life and I expect to see more as the platforms develop and multiply. However, I'm here to say "Know what you're embracing."
My colleagues and I have spent countless hours over the past couple of weeks fielding thousands of calls, e-mails and tweets about the darker side of social media, and I'd like to share some information that may help you protect yourself and your loved ones from the risks we all accept when we sign up for life online. Whether you are a social media maven, are thinking about setting up a profile or just want to know what it is your kids and their friends are doing on their phones and laptops, you should always be taking personal safety and information security into account where online activities are concerned.
GET TO KNOW YOUR "COMMUNITY"
We all know the big social networks because they appeal to the broadest audience of users, but there are thousands of smaller ones that target specific user groups or use specific platforms like video chatrooms. MySpace is a good example. It started out as a competitor for Facebook but has since become known as an online home for musicians and their fans. But there are MySpace equivalents for almost any interest or hobby, and not all of them are positive or safe places to be, especially for kids and teens. So before signing up for an account and handing over whatever personal information is required to do that, take a look at who is already in the network and ask yourself if this is a community you should belong to.
UNDERSTAND THE TERMS OF SERVICE
If you're like most people (yours truly included) when that long, legal document called a "Terms of Service" agreement pops up on your screen, you are more likely to scroll to the bottom and click "yes" than to actually read the not-so-small print. Big mistake. The agreement is where your rights and responsibilities as a user are spelled out (or not):
. Who holds the copyright to your content? Even if your privacy settings are up-to-date, some social networks have it written into their terms of service that they own what you post, which limits your ability to control what you thought was your content.
. Can your information be provided to third parties without your consent? If so, how much information and for what purpose?
. Will the platform let you know if the terms of service change?
. Will the platform cooperate with police investigations?
. How do you de-activate your account and what happens to your information if you do? For some platforms you can de-activate your account but you can't actually delete your content.
. What is the definition of "offensive content" or "abusive behaviour" and what can users do about it? Many social networks value their users' freedom of speech above all else, so content you consider "offensive" or inter-actions you consider "abusive" may not meet their threshold for intervention or discipline.
Beware of the "trolls"
Trolls are users whose primary objective is to offend other users. Every social network has them. The more controversial the topic or issue, the more likely it is that a troll will be part of, or be trying to initiate, the conversation. It is up to you whether to engage, ignore or report trolls when you come across them. Just be aware that your anger and outrage are precisely what the trolls are after.
Also be aware that many trolls are savvy social media users themselves and are careful to operate well within their chosen platform's rules regarding offensive/abusive behaviour.
Online privacy is a journey, not a destination
There is such a thing as too much information (TMI) in social media. Many platforms' default account settings allow maximum access to users' content, and it is up to individual users to get educated on privacy and protect their content. And, once you've invested the time to update your privacy settings, you aren't completely safe. Privacy options can change and most social networks will not publicly announce when they do so. It is up to users to stay up-to-date on how to protect their information for any social network they belong to.
Every social media user should take the time to get informed about the real risks and the full potential of the platforms and communities they choose to join, and personal safety should always be a priority. But parents should be especially attentive when it comes to the online lives of teenagers. There is nothing wrong with setting guidelines and expectations for how and when teens use social media.
Think of it this way: no parent would consider handing over the keys to the family car to their teens without making sure they know the rules of the road and how to safely operate the vehicle. But every day parents provide computers and smartphones to their teens with little to no training about how to use them safely.
It's time that changed. Speak openly and often about the risks of social media. We'll all be safer for it.