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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.
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
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
1 “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018,” Pew Research Center, May 2018.
2 Russ Alan Prince, “How Billionaires and Ultra-High-Net-Worth Families Leave Hackers the Keys to the Castle,” Forbes, January 19, 2015.
3 Andrea Ayers and Colleen H. Johnson, “HNW Families Require Unique Approach to Fighting Cybercrime,” WealthManagement.com, June 2017.
4 Ana Homayoun, “The Secret Social Media Lives of Teenagers,” The New York Times, June 2017.
5 Cision PR Web, “Dashlane Study: US Internet Users Drowning in Online Accounts — With Further Tidal Wave Approaching,” prweb.com, July 2015.
6 Sidney Fussell, “This site lets you control your social media profiles after you've died,” Business Insider, May 2016.
7 “Social Media Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center, January 2017.
8 “TEDxRainier – Dimitri Christakis – Media and Children,” (https://youtu.be/BoT7qH_uVNo), December 2011.
9 Salman Latif, “Google’s Eric Schmidt Offers Tech Insights in ‘The New Digital Age,’“ The Tech Journal, April 2013.
10 Darian Somers, “Do Colleges Look at Your Social Media Accounts?” U.S. News & World Report, February 2017.
11 Greg Botelho, “Arrest Made in Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf ‘Sextortion’ Case,” CNN, September 2013. (Latest available source.)
12 Vangie Beal, “Domain Name,” Webopedia, September 2013.
Source: The Center for Family Wealth at Merrill Lynch, with input from Brad Deflin, founder and president of Total Digital security.