I’ve read plenty of articles by now that cover how much people might be exposing themselves to identity theft through social networking and social sharing sites. But I’ve had a different worry over the past year or so. Is all my twittering, Flickr posting, Facebooking and so on putting my kids in danger?
Think about it. I’m not just exposing myself online as I share things with my now 2,000 followers on Twitter or my 1,500 “friends” on Facebook or anyone who sees a photo I leave public on Flickr. I’m giving away details of my life to strangers that could let a crazy person make themselves seem familiar to one of my kids.
Chills. I got chills after writing the sentence above. And I’ve thought about it for some time, pondering whether I should even do a post about it, for fear that just talking about the potential danger might make it more real. But I think it’s an important issue that few are really considering and one without an easy answer. Below, some of what I’ve been thinking about and doing to reduce the danger.
I don’t want to throw up the shutters and withdraw from social activity on the web. I enjoy twittering, and it’s fun to have photos up on Flickr so that I can make them show in places like on my blog. Tim Bray recently likened Twitter to being like a corner coffee shop, and I like walking into the shop, talking with some of my friends and even some people I don’t know well there, because I make new friends that way.
It’s also hard for me to withdraw socially when much of what I do revolves being on both virtual and physical stages. In particular as a marketer, social sites are places I want to be, making connections and networking virtually as I would do in life.
In fact, I just came back from our SMX Sydney show, where I did plenty of real-life networking that involved talking about my personal life with people and hearing about their personal lives. When did I arrive? When am I leaving? And your family is back where? You’re going to do what next week? Completely innocent questions that are asked and answered without a second thought — but do the same thing online, and they become a record of your current and future movements that might be used in ways you don’t expect.
To date, I don’t think I’ve ever named my kids on this blog. I’ll refer to them as my “oldest” or “youngest” but not use their actual names. That was a conscious decision. I didn’t want their names out there, for fear of aforementioned crazy people, scary strangers, whatever. Similarly, I didn’t put their pictures into my Flickr photostream until a few months ago, so that someone might know I have kids but not have any idea what they look like. They’d be on Flickr, but they pictures were restricted to friends and family.
One problem with my great master plan is that it didn’t take into account friends. I’ve had friends who know my children and both talk about them by name and post pictures online. If you were really looking, you’d figure it out. Aside from friends, occasionally my kids would be with me at a conference, so would meet someone there who might then mention the encounter online.
I don’t fault my friends or those I’ve met for any of this. It’s not like I wrapped the kids up in big “do not blog” bubble wrap clothing. No one did any of this with intent to cause harm, nor would I even say they were thoughtless in it. Rather, I think we’ve been fortunate that to date, online has remained a largely happy, safe place to share and talk about things.
Instead of hiding my kids, I think the solution is that I’ll have to educate them more. “Stranger Danger” means I know need to explain that Daddy shares some things online, and if anyone comes along that seems to know a lot about what you’ve done, where we’ve gone and so on, that doesn’t mean they are your friend or that you should trust them. I’m really pondering the best way to explain all this, so that I don’t freak them out yet keep them safe.
To give you some perspective, they’ve never even really had the basic stranger danger talk from me yet. That’s because they’ve grown up in a small English village, where no one plays in the street as I did as a Southern California kid. They’ve been driven to school not out of laziness but because it’s way too far to walk and generally have never been out of sight of either me or my wife. But our move back to suburban Southern California’s going to mix them with many more people, plus as they’re getting to that age where I might let them walk places on their own. Chills, again, even thinking about that. Maybe I’ll keep them under escort until 16
Clearly, they need the talk. And clearly to me, that needs to include how people could make it seem like they know us, when they don’t. Scary stuff, and part of me wonders how much I created the problem inadvertently or if rather, it’s inevitable for anyone who spends much time online these days.
I’ve also pondered pulling back on some of the personal stuff I share online. This is hard for reasons I’ve mentioned already plus as a writer, not being able to talk about my family prevents me from doing more of the personal writing that I want to explore more. What’s the balance?
As I said, I don’t plan to pull the shutters down. But I have been already and probably will be more careful about what I do share, along with doing the proper education of my kids.
Ironically, when I moderated our Teens & Search panel at SMX West, the teens on the panel expressed that kids needed more education that what they share on social sites could be used against them. Certainly there have been plenty of articles on this topic, too. But parents and adults need that education too. What you share isn’t just exposing you. It’s exposing others (and see Vanessa’s excellent post on this from last year).
I think about that a lot beyond my kids. I generally don’t post pictures of people who I don’t think have been in a public view. And if I write or twitter about someone, I ask myself carefully if they’re going to mind, if they’re already talking about such things themselves.