Our digital footprints are bigger than ever. We bank online. We shop online. We order the Friday night takeaway from our phones. We receive updates from our children’s schools via social media. We make doctors’ appointments online. So much of everyday life takes place online.
This means everyone must be aware of the dangers of being online. And I’m not talking about the obvious threats like phishing and malware. (Although you should, of course, take steps to defend against those obvious threats, such as installing a firewall.) Rather, this article is about the more insidious, subtle threats that are part of online life – and what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones.
1. Digital addiction
This can span any type of addiction related to digital pastimes, including social media addiction, internet addiction, phone addiction and gaming addiction. Social media addiction is a particular concern, because these platforms are literally designed to maximize the amount of time we spend on them. Given this, it’s no wonder an estimated 210 million people worldwide suffer from social media addiction.
But it’s not just social media sites that are addictive; 75.4 percent of Americans consider themselves addicted to their smartphone. Again, much of the time spent on smartphones likely revolves around social media, but there’s no doubt that phones themselves have become something we automatically reach for when we want to feel validated or absorbed. We’re losing the ability to be idle and alone with our thoughts, even for a few moments.
So what can you do to turn the tide? Here are a few tips:
· To help reduce the overall amount of time you spend on your phone, you can set time limits for specific apps. (Do this in your phone’s settings.) You’d be amazed how quickly 20 minutes pass when you’re going down the Instagram rabbit hole, so these time limits will help you use apps more mindfully.
· Set a “bedtime” or “do not disturb” mode, where your phone turns off app notifications between the evening and morning.
· Better still, you can simply turn off app notifications altogether. Instead, log into apps on your terms, at times that suit you, not because some notification sucked you in.
· If you want to be really strict, you can delete the most distracting apps from your phone (you can always log in on your computer if you feel a desperate urge to see Cousin Gary’s holiday pictures).
· Help your children to build healthy (or healthier) digital habits. For example, in my family, we have a “one-screen rule,” which means literally one screen at a time – so no going on their phones during family movie night. And yes, my wife and I follow the same rules!
· Learn to spot the signs of digital addiction. Depression is a key indicator, especially for social media addiction. Teens, for example, are twice as likely to exhibit symptoms of depression when they spend more than five hours a day on their smartphones.
According to the leading UK bullying charity, Bullying UK, 56 percent of young people have seen others be bullied online. We must all learn to recognize cyberbullying, teach our children what cyberbullying looks like, and take appropriate action when it occurs.
What can you do about it?
· Firstly, know what counts as cyberbullying. It’s basically any form of bullying that takes place online or through smartphones or tablets – so that includes things like text messages, Snapchat, WhatsApp and other messaging services, gaming sites, social media platforms, and chat rooms and message boards. Cyberbullying can take the form of harassment (such as sending offensive messages or making nasty comments), sharing damaging photos, making threats, spreading fake rumors, stalking, and even intentionally excluding someone from online activities.
· Learn to spot the signs that your child is being bullied online – for example, becoming noticeably upset after being on their phone, showing signs of depression, not participating in activities they previously enjoyed, not engaging with family and friends, and a drop in school grades.
· Know your rights, in particular, whether cyberbullying is a criminal offense in your country or state. In the UK, for example, it’s against the law to use the phone system – which includes the internet – to cause distress. Where it is a criminal offense, report cyberbullying, certainly any threats of violence, to the police.
· In the case of children, cyberbullying should also be reported to the school.
· Always keep a log of evidence of cyberbullying (for example, screenshots), as you never know when you may need it.
· With social media and messaging boards, you can block specific users and/or report them to the platform in question. Or, for a more discreet approach, Facebook and Instagram both have a feature called Restrict that lets you block a specific user without that person ever knowing (basically, the bully will still be able to comment and see their comments on your posts, but you and other users will never see what they say). Both sites also have settings that you can turn on to automatically filter offensive comments and DMs.
· To get offensive or inappropriate content removed, you can either report it to the platform in question, or there’s an organization called Remove Harmful Content that may be able to help.
3. Digital impersonation
As more of our lives go online (including images, videos, and recordings of us), digital identity theft is becoming more of a threat. Social media impersonation is a particular threat to watch out for. Here, fraudsters create social media accounts that use someone else’s (or even an organization’s) name, image, and other identifying features to create fake accounts. I’ve experienced this myself, with my public photos being used to create fake (but authentic-looking) Facebook accounts in my name. Even if your identity isn’t used by fraudsters, there’s still a risk that you could be interacting with fake accounts online.
Here are some practical steps you can take:
· Be on the lookout for fake social media accounts. As a general rule, fake accounts may be recently created, with few friends or images on their profile.
· To avoid being targeted by fake accounts, you can adjust your privacy settings so your profile isn’t public and only friends see your posts.
· Whenever you do accept new friend or follower requests, or follow a new account yourself, be vigilant; don’t be rushed into sharing personal information or images, and never give money to anyone who asks for it online.
· If you’re concerned that your identity might be used by others, do a regular search of your name and look for images of you. (A reverse image search lets you upload your images and find out where they exist online.)
· Think very carefully about the information you share on social media – personal information, photos, etc. – as it can all be used to create authentic-looking accounts in your name.