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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.



On the Internet today, we post photos from our lives, “like” other people’s posts, and communicate with shorthand images called emojis—but when you zoom out from these day-to-day moments, it’s clear we’re also creating a record of all our activities. These moments add up to a collection, or dossier, of our online lives, and that dossier is permanent. In a way, your online presence over the years will add up to a virtual life that will run parallel to your offline life.

There’s a real danger that 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. “That information is always out there, held by unaccountable people for indeterminable periods of time. Anything can happen to it,” says Brad Deflin, founder and president of Total Digital Security.

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. Identity thieves often target such families precisely because they tend to have greater credit and more accounts,2 giving cybercriminals more to gain.

CYBER VULNERABILITY

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. And once information is online, it’s impossible to know exactly how it’s being used.

A cybercriminal may hide behind a false profile or username and 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.

According to Deflin, cybercriminals can also employ digital technology and “bots” 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,” he says. Put another way: Criminals can now search through your entire digital dossier to find crucial information, which they then use to target you.

“The number of attacks is increasing, and so is the amount of detail and personalization of those attacks,” says Deflin. “Attackers are using both powerful software and a universe of available personal information.”

Other dangers 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 be disastrous. 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.4

Digital Death and Afterlife

By 2020, from bank accounts to social media, the average American is estimated to have over 200 online accounts,5 and managing digital assets has become a common part of estate planning. Preparing for the digital afterlife is a necessity, and many social media sites are creating their own management systems to make end-of-life preparations easier. For example, one widely used search engine established a feature that allows users to determine the fate of their accounts should they pass away, and a popular social media site allows users to memorialize their accounts and name a “legacy contact,” or someone to look after their account postmortem.6

Today, around seven-in-ten Americans use social media.7 It’s a good idea for all users to create a safeguarded list of accounts and passwords, and give clear instructions on how to handle each individual account in the event of the unexpected, including naming a designee for each account.

 

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.”8

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,” says Deflin.

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.

Sample Social Media Policy

Philosophy

  • We value the privacy and safeguarding of information and family members’ personal safety.
  • We value the preservation of our family reputation, putting our best foot forward in how we portray ourselves.
  • We value a quiet demonstration of wealth.

Etiquette
To support the above values, all family members will engage in good digital citizenship and agree to:

  • Use positive messaging in posts and images, that portray respect and integrity. (No derogatory remarks, even in jest.)
  • Post only on your own accounts. Do not use a friend’s device and post on that person's profile or use their social media handle as if you were them.
  • Establish account settings that:
    • Remove location information from all photos before posting.
    • Require acceptance before tagged photos appear on your profile.
  • Encrypt using VPN (virtual private network) to ensure privacy when accessing public networks.
    • Embed encryption into every device, and use it as a filter for all online interactions.
  • Avoid using surnames or nicknames on the family Wi-Fi network. (Anything personal may send a signal to cybercriminals.)
  • Use discretion when posting, and always err on the side of caution. For example, family members should:
    • Wait to post vacation photos until returning home.
    • Refrain from posting photos of expensive family assets.
    • Check with family members before posting personal family information, even if it seems harmless.

Execution

  • Set up search engine alerts for family names. Rotate monitoring responsibility quarterly among family members.
  • Use a password manager to simplify the complexity of logging in. Committing 15 to 30 minutes to set this up will make your digital accounts more secure. And, when it comes to security, the length is more important than complexity, so make passwords more than 10 characters.
  • Develop a restorative practice helping children learn from their mistakes if rules are broken. For example, if a child posts something derogatory online that may damage the family reputation, a consequence might be doing community outreach to help restore a positive reputation.
  • Have all family members sign and date the social media policy, and review and update it annually. Keep in mind, it’s a living document that will evolve with both family members’ needs and changing technology.

“We raise our kids to think about manners and etiquette, but as the chasm between our physical life and our virtual life narrows,” says Deflin, “how you behave and act on the Internet is becoming just as important as how you behave at a dinner party. If you use bad judgment or you get too far over your skis on the Internet, you just don’t get away with it.”

The idea of having to answer for—whether it be in a positive or negative context—what we put on the Internet is perhaps best explained in The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses and Our Lives, the 2013 book from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas founder and Jigsaw CEO Jared Cohen. Deflin notes one of the books overarching themes—“We are what we post”—as being particularly important.

“Identity will be the most valuable commodity for citizens in the future,” he says. “And with artificial intelligence and big data software collecting everything we do on the Internet, how we are perceived is directly linked to our online behavior.” This seems especially relevant when considering the book’s claim that the ability to delete or remove data is “largely an illusion.”9 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,” says Deflin. 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 Stacy Allred, a wealth strategist and leader of the Center for Family Wealth at Merrill Lynch. “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,” Deflin says. “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. Autonomy and ownership will be key for all families.

Consider the conversation between a parent and their child preparing to apply for college. According to a 2016 Kaplan Test Prep survey, 35% of college admissions officers in the U.S. reported looking at the social media accounts of applicants to learn more about them.10 More specifically, 25% of those officers said they often did so during the application process, an 11% increase from the previous year.

The Four Fundamentals of Cybersecurity

Part of every family social media strategy should be firming up your technology. By keeping your technology up to date, you can manage your risks. Here’s where to start.

  1. Protect your devices. Use antivirus software and intruder protection.
  2. Use encryption as much as possible. VPN is the lock that keeps your data safe.
  3. Privatize e-mail. Get your conversations off the grid.
  4. Protect your routers. All your information flows through your router, so make sure everything leaving your home is protected with encryption.

For more on cybersecurity, read "Digital Defense: Keeping Your Family Safe Online" at pbig.ml.com.

As Allred 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,” Deflin says.

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 Allred. “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,” says Deflin, though he advises that you think 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. A former Miss Teen USA happened to be one of the victims11 —otherwise the story might never have made the news. 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,12 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,” says Deflin. “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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