Social Media and Your Family
Creating rules for online behavior that align with your family's values may help all of you make safe and appropriate choices.
Posting photos from our lives, “liking” other people’s posts, and communicating with others are parts of everyday life for those using social media. These moments add up to a collection, or dossier, of our online lives, and that dossier is permanent. Your online presence creates a virtual persona that can be very different from your offline identity.
Your children’s digital dossiers could affect their lives—or those of your entire family—in ways that are difficult to anticipate but could cause lasting damage. Information is always out there, for indeterminable periods of time.
Consider that access to the Internet has grown considerably in just the last few years. One study reports 95% of teens have access to smartphones and 45% are online “almost constantly.”1 It isn’t hard to imagine they could possibly give out personal information—whether in updates, photos, or text—to someone they don’t know. Such actions could have negative repercussions for anyone, but wealthy families face an especially grave risk of privacy violations and Internet fraud. Cybercriminals prey on the children of wealthy families, knowing that a hacked tablet or smartphone could unearth family treasure.2
Affluent families are more likely than other families to be the victims of cybercrime—essentially any illegal activity via a computer or the Internet. And online predators have been known to track the online activity of wealthy children,3 who may have inadvertently disclosed information making their family vulnerable. Once information is online, it’s impossible to know exactly how it’s being used.
According to a 2017 study conducted by Campden Research in partnership with the international law firm Schillings, fully 28% of HNWIs have been the victim of at least one cyberattack. Even more alarming, more than a third of respondents indicated that they do not have a cybersecurity plan in place. To help you with the math, next time you’re out for dinner with another couple traveling in the same economic sphere, at least one of you has been breached.4
A cybercriminal may hide behind a false profile or username, pose as a harmless peer and then manipulate unsuspecting young adults into disclosing private information. Even the most routine action could put your child and family at risk—and not just in cyberspace. Suppose your son posts a vacation photo on Instagram. A criminal who sees a glamorous beach shot with the name of an exotic locale could spot an opportunity to break into an empty home.
Cybercriminals can also employ digital technology to target as many as 10,000 or 100,000 people at a time. Software today can process enormous amounts of information, cross-referencing it all with artificial intelligence to target individuals. Put another way: Criminals can now search through your entire digital dossier to find crucial information, which they then use to target you.
Other issues may arise if a family member mentions business ventures online. A tweet telling of a new product or of a change in company leadership—the type of information a child might glean from an overheard conversation—could have a large impact. What’s more, once something is posted on social media, it becomes part of the public record. Tweets and photos of teens whose parents are in the public eye can easily be picked up by news or gossip sites and potentially taken out of context. In one notable case, offers to a prestigious college were rescinded when it became clear that 10 students posted offensive memes online.5
ONLINE RULES FOR YOUR FAMILY
Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH, and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute advises, “Parents need to be as mindful of children’s digital lives as they are of their actual ones, and they need to help set guard rails and rules of the road. A social media policy is as important as an estate plan.”6
One way to anticipate and possibly avert the dangers of online behavior is to create a family social media and cybersecurity policy. When we talk about a family social media policy, what we’re really talking about is teaching cyber self-defense and good digital citizenship.
Being a good citizen of the digital world often means incorporating many of the same principles applied in the offline world. Behaving responsibly online, for example, could mean refraining from mean-spirited, offensive, or bullying comments. Obeying the law translates into not illegally downloading material. Taking personal responsibility suggests an understanding that online actions may reflect upon your own character and your family.
Identity will be the most valuable commodity for citizens in the future. Artificial intelligence and big data software collecting everything we do on the Internet, how we are perceived is directly linked to our online behavior. For example, getting into an argument on a social platform about a controversial subject may elicit heightened emotions, which might lead to saying something offensive in the heat of the moment. Even if you apologize for those comments later, they will still be out there for the world to read.
To avoid such situations and start thinking about good digital citizenship, consider these parameters as you put together a policy for your family.
- Define your core practices of online behavior. These might include anything from “no smartphones at the dinner table” to “never share someone else’s private information online.” Short, declarative commands are easy to remember, and they can also help set clear boundaries for behavior.
- Secure the intangibles. In this digital age, protecting your family’s reputation and online image is increasingly crucial.
- Instill personal responsibility. Having a family policy can create a sense of buy-in. When it’s clear that everyone, including parents, will be held to the same standards, and will face the same consequences if they fall short, children may be more likely to feel a sense of collective responsibility.
“Your kids may know social media can give potential employers and college admission departments an intimate view into their lives, but they may not realize it can have damaging consequences for their family’s security and reputation as well,” says Matthew Wesley, a wealth strategist at Merrill Center for Family WealthTM. “By talking about issues of privacy and online reputation early on, you can help the rising generation develop a framework for making decisions about what is appropriate and safe online behavior. Think of what the power of a digital footprint, either positive or negative, can have for a future politician.”
While conveying to your children the potential consequences of their online behavior is a crucial component of the Internet conduct conversation, it shouldn't be treated as the sole approach to establishing your family's policy.
It’s important to make the discussion a positive experience. It's about giving children a sense of digital empowerment, autonomy, and educating them on the ability they have to influence and craft their future through their social media engagement.
Families and children need to consider their personal information as property, and work toward gaining autonomy from major companies that are working steadily to compile everyone’s personal information and benefit from it. This includes both search engines and social media platforms, which collect browsing, shopping, geolocation, and other personal details from users.
Consider the conversation between a parent and their child preparing to apply for college. According to a 2018 Kaplan Test Prep survey, 25% of college admissions officers in the U.S. reported looking at the social media accounts of applicants to learn more about them.10 Privacy concerns and the inability to find the prospective students online are possible contributing reasons.
As Wesley notes, the younger generation likely understands their social profiles will be considered when applying to schools, as well as future job opportunities, but they may not know to what extent their online identity can actually influence the outcome of the process. Regardless, parents should not use the conversation to scare or intimidate, but rather to educate and empower.
It’s about helping them understand the power they have to create an identity that is consistent with who they want to be, and how they want the world to see them.
LIVING YOUR POLICY
Once your family has created a social media policy, the next step is making sure everyone follows it. These suggestions for maintaining privacy and monitoring online activity could help. “It’s one thing to create rules, but enforcing them is another matter,” says Wesley. “When kids and teens understand the rationale behind the rules in your social media policy, they’re more likely to follow them. That’s why transparency and communication are so important. When the rising generation feels like they’re part of the decision-making process, there’s a greater buy-in than if they are merely told what to do. That’s when rules can feel punitive.”
- Set up a monitoring system. There are systems available to monitor everything a family member does. Consider carefully before imposing that level of vigilance on family members. You might also consider software that monitors Internet usage or blocks access to designated websites.
- Personalize it. Remind family members they’re not immune to cybercrime, and might be victimized in ways they would never expect. In one recent scam, several young women were victimized when a hacker hijacked their webcams and took inappropriate photos of them, then used those photos as blackmail. Online invasions of privacy often go unnoticed or unreported, and what we hear in the media may only be the tip of the iceberg.
- Stay alert. Your family may want to set up search engine alerts for family members’ names or do periodic Internet searches to evaluate their online appearances and behavior. Alerts are a simple way to be on the lookout for situations in which your family’s name or reputation may be at risk.
- Clean up past mistakes. Even though it may be impossible to erase online gaffes entirely, be sure to go back and delete family members’ offensive comments, postings, photos, or videos from social media sites, blogs and anywhere else they may live.
- Establish a family domain name. Creating a private family domain, such as @smithfamily.com, reinforces the importance of privacy and creates an exclusive network on which to discuss family business. A family domain can also serve as a kind of multigenerational digital hub where all family members can share details about important decisions. A domain name is the part of an e-mail address that identifies it as belonging to a particular web server, and setting up one for your family creates autonomy and control within the network.
The family domain is the most effective driver at creating change for the digital age within families. Setting it up and using it puts a stake in the ground, and creates accountability and standards. It can also become the most consistent reinforcer of those standards, through everyday use. Having a family domain doesn’t mean each family member can’t also have an e-mail address for other matters, but having a private online space can help give everyone a sense of ownership about personal family matters.
As the digital landscape continues to evolve, the way your family relates to it will also have to change. But by instilling online awareness early on, you can help make sure that your children’s reputations—and your family’s—remain intact.
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