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Scary trends in social media extend beyond teens

Last Updated: August 9, 2021

Daniel Lohrmann

Dan Lohrmann is an internationally recognized Internet and computer security expert. Currently, Mr. Lohrmann works as the CSO for the state of Michigan. For seven years he served as the Chief Information Security Officer for the Michigan government. He started his career in the National Security Agency, and later worked in England for seven years with Lockheed Martin followed by Mantech International. Dan holds a Master's Degree in Computer Science (CS) from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and a Bachelor's Degree in CS from Valparaiso University in Indiana. He is the author of Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web.

A recent USA Today headline points to a scary trend: Cyberbullying extends to workplace, bedroom.

Here’s how the article begins:

Cyberbullying is no longer restricted to children.

Adults routinely use content from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social-media services to intimidate and harass subordinates and rivals at work.

When romantic relationships go sour, aggrieved lovers often turn to social media services to stalk or embarrass an estranged partner.

While readers of the Covenant Eyes blog may not be surprised by this new normal, it is easy to forget how quickly things have changed online. Just a decade ago, building personal web pages for the world to gaze inside your personal life was a practice limited to a few geeks or fringe organizations. Sharing intimate stories, photos and more with thousands or even millions of people online was both frowned upon and difficult to achieve for the masses.

Even five years ago, when Facebook was just getting on a roll and Twitter was so new that I didn’t even include it in my book Virtual Integrity, the standards of conduct online were quite different. But as inhibition has faded and online privacy largely abandoned by the millennial generation, mobile technology has simultaneously exploded. Everyone older than twelve now seems to have a smartphone, and our society shares tweets, pictures and more using social media.

Virtual Predictions Coming True

Back when my book first came out in 2008, some early criticism focused on outlandish predictions I was making. While friends at church were supportive and intrigued, many said, “These things will never happen in the next 10-20 years.” Indeed, over 90% of my predictions from Virtual Integrity have already come true within five years, and the dark side of the Internet has become even darker than anticipated.

The new mindset for many has become “if it’s not on Facebook it never happened.” The merger of the real world and cyber world is accelerating. Apps now allow us to instantly update everyone on anything that happens.

I am not saying that all of this is bad. Indeed, there are many wonderful, exciting benefits to online life. However, as I described in this lecture at Luther College, the Internet is an accelerator, like the gas pedal in your car. The World Wide Web is making almost everything go faster.

Snapchat

One recently launched app that personifies this trend is SnapChat. According to Wikipedia, “SnapChat is a photo messaging application developed by four Stanford students. Using the app, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send them to a controlled list of recipients. Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their photos, up to 10 seconds, after which it will be deleted from the recipient’s device and the company’s servers.”

However, many people view Snapchat as the “sexting app.” This Forbes article offers a warning to teens regarding the dangers of using SnapChat and believing that the image is truly gone forever. For example:

Untrusted recipients, however, may look to circumvent self-destruction and actively share items. This is especially problematic because it is technologically impossible to guarantee that a recipient does not generate a screen capture. […]

But the illusion of security provided by SnapChat may be even more problematic, as it may encourage risky behavior. If people think that their private photos and videos can be shared in a manner that is truly self-destructing (as has been ingrained thanks to movies such as the Mission Impossible series) they are more likely to send them to others. This is especially true for teenagers – notorious for sexting and oversharing.

Are Privacy Settings The Answer?

But what I find to be most perplexing about this trend is the widespread belief that technology can somehow “fix” poor judgment. The mentality seems to be, I’ll go ahead and take this picture that I know is not appropriate or goes over “the line” – whatever that line is for you. Yes, I can share it with someone. But no worry, it will disappear in 10 seconds. History will be erased.

Or, I can set my privacy setting on Facebook or Twitter in such a way that certain things won’t be seen by certain people.

Side note: I recommend using stronger privacy settings, but I just don’t put my faith in my privacy settings. I know people who have had their privacy settings changed by friends who “hacked” into their accounts or knew their passwords. They were embarrassed by the items revealed or things said when those settings were changed “in fun.” Also, configuration mistakes are common.

This sentiment goes along the same lines as a blog written a few years back for the Harvard Business Review, The Three P’s of Online Indulgence. I responded with this piece asking if online indulgence can indeed be managed?

The difference now is that these behaviors are becoming more open and acceptable by the masses.

I closed that article with this advice:

No doubt we all have made (and will make) mistakes. Humbly acknowledging our weakness and vulnerabilities is a good place to start. When we see the appalling headlines about our leaders and celebrities behaving badly in cyberspace, we can say: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

We also need to understand that technology is only a tool. Lasting solutions must include people, processes and technology answers. And we must start with the people—our motivations, passions and desires.

Start by asking yourself, family members, colleagues and friends: What are you trying to do? Why did you do (fill-in-the-blank)? What are your online goals? Are my actions matching my beliefs? Am I surfing my values? Why or why not?

No longer is our online life a fringe activity for a few hours a week. The trends in social media and mobile technology now means that cyberspace has merged into all areas of life.

What’s your plan?