Casual Communications, Serious Consequences

Today, people are encouraged to reveal all kinds of data about themselves online. Once information is shared in cyberspace, it becomes part of a person’s digital footprint. Unfortunately, if this information lands in the wrong hands, it can compromise one’s personal safety, finances, or mental health. Communication in the digital world should be speedy, interesting, and fun, but it should not result in the exposure of sensitive information. People should think ahead and proceed with caution in order to protect their information and safety.

Profile Dangers

On social networking sites, people can post art, poetry, songs, photos, updates, and—most revealing of all—personal profiles. Many sites give people an introductory page on which to describe themselves and their interests. Young people must be extremely careful about what they share on this page. Full names, birth dates, names of siblings, parents’ and grandparents’ names, and home addresses—this is all information that should not end up in a profile on any Web site. In addition, young people should not reveal any information about their daily routines and schedules, such as which school they attend, which school bus they take, or where they go after school. Giving out this information makes it easy for identity theft to occur. Even more worrisome is that someone can use others’ personal information to follow, stalk, or harass them.

The more personal information you include in a profile, the more ammunition a hacker or identity thief has to exploit you.
Personal profile information may be intended for close friends only, but even if you choose to share your profile only with friends, hackers are not deterred. They can get into sites through back doors and steal information. The more personal information you include in a profile, the more ammunition a hacker or identity thief has to exploit you. A hacker can contact you, claiming to be a friend of a friend, based on information you posted about yourself, including your school name, class schedule, and after-school activities. The hacker might try to gain your trust and then ask you to compare Social Security numbers or reveal other sensitive information.

Information can leak out more easily than you may think. For example, a friend may read your profile on a computer screen in a public place, such as a library or recreation center, and then forget to log off. Now anyone who passes by can see your information. Once this information is viewed, it can be used to piece together your life story.

Profile Tips

To create a safer social networking profile, and one that will protect your digital footprint, try the following tips:

  • Create a screen name with a positive persona, but one that still keeps your real identity secret. Consider making your screen name gender neutral for additional safety.

  • Think critically about how you fill out the profile form. List positive role models, activities, and hobbies. However, do not include locations or schedules.

  • Use the site’s privacy settings to share information only with friends.

  • Agree to be friends only with people you know personally offline. Don’t give strangers access to your profile.

  • Keep your location vague.

  • Choose photos selectively. Don’t post photos that show you or your friends violating school or family rules or breaking local laws.

Guarding Against Cybercrooks

In December 2008, security experts in London warned Internet users about a group of cybercriminals who were breaking into social networking accounts. The cybercrooks stole the personal information of thousands of people, as well as collecting their lists of friends. They sold this information to other criminals, who used it to send out spam e-mails that looked like they came from someone the recipient knew. The spammers made the e-mails sound very realistic. They would include something in the subject line that the familiar person might say, like “See a cute photo of my nephew, Jimmy.” Sometimes the phony e-mails would include a picture that the hackers took from one of the victim’s social networking sites. However, once opened, the message would infect the computer with spyware. The software let hackers access private information like passwords, bank account information, and other personal data. The fake e-mail would ask people to send the photo along to their family and friends. If they did, the victims would unknowingly infect more and more computers. Then, the criminals collected private information from even more people.

Simple carelessness can lead to personal information getting out. Some social networking sites encourage members to acquire as many “friends” as possible, making the whole social networking experience a popularity contest. Sometimes people will give access to so-called “friends” they do not know, revealing private information—including blog entries and photos—to total strangers. One way to avoid this is to give access only to people you know in real life. Even then, it is still advisable to limit the information you put on the site. It is best not to post anything that could ever harm or embarrass you.

In addition, never exchange passwords with a friend. Passwords should be shared only with a parent or guardian. Be helpful to friends by not posting their private information on your site, and ask them to do the same in return. With digital devices providing such a free flow of information, it is important to be respectful of others’ privacy.

A Tattered Twitter

As more digital devices are invented, everyone’s digital footprint grows larger. New worlds of communication are created. With each of these new conveniences come new responsibilities, risks, and potential digital missteps.

A Mesa, Arizona, man believes that his tweeting during a vacation might have tipped off burglars who wanted to rob his house. Using Twitter, he gave some two thousand friends and business associates real-time updates on his road trip. When he arrived back in Mesa, his home had been burglarized. Though there was no proof that tweeting played a role in the robbery, the victim was very suspicious. He owned an online video business and only his video-editing equipment was stolen. The robbers did not make off with any other consumer electronics devices in the home.

Digital Exploitation and Sexting

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Don’t forward private messages or photos, especially compromising photos of others or intimate photos of yourself. In some schools, guys collect these like they’re baseball cards. Is that what you want to be, a commodity? No matter how in love you may be, sexting is not a good idea. What if that photo gets shared, even accidentally? How will you feel? The damage caused by sexting can go beyond possible public humiliation. It can become a law-enforcement issue if either one of you is underage. The only way to make sure your photos don’t get shared is to not take them.
There is never a good reason for anyone, especially someone who cares about you, to ask you to send explicit photos of yourself over the Internet or via a cell phone. Never consider complying with such a request. Sending suggestive pictures as a joke or as a way of flirting is dangerous. The photos remain in cyberspace forever, and you have no control over how they are used.

Sexting, the transmission of nude or sexually explicit photos via texting, is an abuse of digital communications. Law enforcement is cracking down heavily on the practice. Those who participate in it are actually committing a crime. People who send these photos can be charged with distributing pornography. Those who receive them can be charged with possession of pornography. If people in the photos are under eighteen years old, sexting constitutes child pornography and carries even more serious penalties.

Sexting can result in a criminal record, get a person labeled as a sexual predator, and get someone expelled from college or fired from a job.
Teenagers in several states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, have been charged with serious crimes stemming from sexting. Sexting can result in a criminal record, get a person labeled as a sexual predator, and get someone expelled from college or fired from a job. In 2013, a sexting scandal at a New Jersey high school resulted in embarrassment for some students—and possible child pornography charges for others. After two female students sent explicit photos using the photo app Snapchat, the private images went public. Though Snapchat deletes photo messages after a few seconds, the recipients copied the images and shared them on the social networking site Instagram. Police warned any students who keep the photos can be charged under child pornography laws. In 2018, a fourteen-year-old girl was charged with felony dissemination of child pornography after she used Snapchat to send an explicit selfie to a boy she liked. He took a screenshot and sent it to other people without her permission. If convicted, she faces up to seven years in jail and a $10,000 fine, and would appear on the sex offender registry for the next ten years. The other teens may also face criminal charges for distributing obscene material involving a minor. Anyone who uses digital communications should be concerned about sexting or any transmission of suggestive material. It violates a person’s privacy and puts people at risk.

Sexting is considered a form of sexual exploitation. It exposes people to ridicule and can be used to demean another person. In 2008, high school senior Jessica Logan, who lived in the Cincinnati area, committed suicide after an ex-boyfriend sent a nude picture of her to his friends in seven area high schools. The harassment and bullying that followed was too much for the young student to handle.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reports that 51 percent of girls who sent out revealing photos of themselves were pressured by a boy to do so. Cosmogirl.com reported that, on an annual basis, 25 percent of the child victims of online pornography initially sent revealing pictures of themselves to someone they thought they could trust.

A 2013 study from the medical journal Pediatrics examined sexting in seventh grade students with behavioral or emotional difficulties. Twenty-two percent of these teens had sexted in the six months before the study. Teens who had sexted were more likely to engage in sexual behaviors. Researchers discovered that students who sexted had less “emotional awareness” than their peers. These teens had difficulty recognizing and managing their emotions, leaving them unprepared for the consequences of sexting.

Gossip is often hurtful, yet people pass it along anyway, regardless of whether it is true or not. These photos are passed along the same way, without concern for whom they might hurt. The good news is that these problems can be avoided. Photos are a part of your digital footprint that you can control simply by not clicking the “send” button.

Overall, the most valuable tool in the digital world is good judgment. Managing a digital footprint takes some work and a measure of common sense. There is a great deal that can be done to shape the content of a digital footprint. Much of the information that people wish was not publicly displayed online often winds up there because they posted it themselves.