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When Social Media Is Used for Bad

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KENDRA OLESON THE DIRTY
Alamy

In October 2012, British Columbia teen Amanda Todd ended her life after suffering intolerable bullying triggered by a sexual predator who found and blackmailed her through Facebook. Millions were outraged. We were too. We are social media enthusiasts who care deeply about protecting vulnerable young users in the cyber woods from the predators out to get them.

The benefits of social media (SM) in connecting users worldwide are well known, and we ourselves have cheered the democratization of knowledge and information sharing. However, the proliferations of SM access to an increasingly younger demographic is most worrisome.

Our concern is with young SM users, the estimated 200 million under 17 users of Facebook and similar sites. Amanda Todd's call for help burns our senses and we shout a cry. And a challenge.

We cry foul, that SM providers still enable predators to easily find young victims online. We challenge social media businesses, multi-billion dollar operations, to show some heart. We challenge Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and all such SM companies to soul searching. And real action.

From the start, these free services lacked transparency. We found out after the fact that we were being "data mined," our personal information and online history made available to advertisers to strategically target us with customized ads. We submitted to lengthy "Terms of Use" agreements that most people don't read.

Let's face it, we've been had, seduced by the world at our fingertips. Now we know better, that the dance was not free, the costs have been considerable.

As shocking as Amanda's story was, there is still much cause for worry. Known security gaps in a proliferating host of mobile applications have converted mainstream SM sites into highly effective devices for predators and abusive bullies.

A YouTube channel, The Daily Capper, openly celebrates and promotes sexual blackmailing of young girls, fueling traffic to a dark web of under-age sex sites. Omegle, a Facebook-connected site, enables anyone (including kids) to "Talk to Strangers" via video or text. These are extremely dangerous conditions that leave children in harm's way.

Instagram, a photo-sharing program owned by Facebook, can easily be accessed by young children via smartphones, who can inadvertently publish their home addresses, phone numbers, and even physical locations. Thousands of babysitter images of young children have been uploaded, many with locations identified. Facebook has become a brand feared by parents, when it could be one they can trust.

Educating parents and kids -- teaching "net smart" habits -- is very important, yet insufficient protection for the young. Some parents do teach responsible SM habits and may engage various parental controls. But the task of monitoring and adjusting children's online behaviour, even at home, is beyond the ability of most parents. Parents simply can't police their kids effectively.

SM makes the challenge of parenting that much harder: kids now live in two worlds, real and virtual, and they often behave like they don't know the difference. Many seem to not understand the need to keep private matters private. They don't realize that on SM comments and photos shared may stay online forever. The proximate real world of a few friends, relations and colleagues gives way to hundreds of online "friends" whose text and image sharing can immeasurably amplify these interactions.

Clearly, there is a security gap for young online users, a gap that is best addressed by those businesses that profit from offering SM services. They created the risk for young users. It is their corporate responsibility to build young user safety into all applications as a mandatory design requirement.

Our B.C. community is building a grassroots movement to urge industry reform and consumer protection. We have launched Red Hood Project, on Facebook and Twitter, to rally public demand for systemic safety changes in the SM industry. We invite everyone to join us. An Open Letter to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was posted on numerous news sites. We await her reply.

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