Introduction

Technological advancements and social media along with the creation of smart phones and the applications that allow people to access social media virtually anywhere, have increased our ability to communicate with large numbers of people at any time of the day or night. The advancement of such technology and social media is wide spread, making it easy for information to be disseminated quickly and efficiently, while at the same time allowing the sender or recipient of such information to remain anonymous if they so choose.

Social media sites such as ‘Facebook’, ‘Tumblr,’ ‘MySpace’, ‘Twitter,’ ‘LinkedIn’ and ‘You Tube’ reach millions of people and  have been successful in uniting groups of people over a shared cause, whether it is a community event or finding a missing child. A status update, tweet, video or blog can reach people in a matter of minutes; friends, family and strangers alike. Social media sites increase the ways that people can raise awareness about a cause, issue or idea, and also invite other people to join them.

Victim Agencies and Social Media

Due to the number of people that these sites can reach, many missing children’s and victim organizations are using them to gain support for their causes and disseminate information as well.  For example, organizations such as the Missing Children’s Society of Canada, Child Find, Victims of Violence Centre for Missing Children, Kids Help Phone, and the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, not only have their own web pages, but can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. These organizations post relevant information on their news feeds, accounts, or threads which help keep people updated about current issues, controversies, missing children’s information, resources, legislation, as well as a host of other important information.

Another example is AMBER Alert, which has traditionally relied on television and radio to inform the public of an abducted child that is in imminent danger, but is now also on Facebook and is able to reach thousands of more people via their “app.” Apps, or applications, are one of the newest and most helpful ways that people can receive information about missing children. In the case of Amber Alerts, smart phone users can download the appropriate app and receive alerts as soon as they are released in specific areas, allowing them to carry the information on their phone where ever they go. In addition to the app for AMBER Alert, location based apps, which are essentially a GPS system for your phone, are also now being used to locate missing children for which an AMBER Alert has not been issued. For example, the makers of Poynt have teamed up with the Missing Children’s Society of Canada and will provide search alerts to smart phone users in a particular geographical area where a child has been reported missing. The idea is to help spread information as quickly as possible to the people who are most likely able to help.

Online Predators and Social Media

It is important to understand however, that not only well meaning organizations and people have access to social media sites; pedophiles, and other criminals are equally capable of making an account on these sites.  There are some security settings on social media sites which can limit the type and amount of personal information that a non-invited person can see, but a diligent person could get around them if enough effort was applied. As Facebook is the most widely used social media site, and arguably contains the most personal, and detailed information of an individual, most of the dangers of social media will be discussed in relation to this site, however many of these issues can also be applied to Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Google Plus, LinkedIn and a host of other social media sites as well.

While Facebook requires all users to be of a certain age (13 years old) and submit their age during the sign-up process, there is no method of verification, and thus children at any age can make an account if they chose to (they would simply have to enter in a birth date that would make them old enough). Once a personal Facebook page is made, personal information such as telephone numbers, home address, pictures, school information, information about hobbies and interests, etc. can be posted and shared with other people who are your “friends” (other people who you have accepted as someone you would like to share information and communicate with).  It is possible to set privacy settings so that only some information is available to people you have not added as a friend, and also so that only certain friends can view all of your information.  In principle, these security settings do block people you do not know from accessing your personal information, but they only work if the setting are applied by the user. If they are not, all 600,000,000 Facebook users can have unlimited access to your Facebook page, some of whom will use that information to “groom” young children and teens.

Grooming is a term used to describe the actions of a person (usually an adult) takes to gain another’s (usually a child) trust. On social media sites, a predator may make an account that would make them seem like they are another child or teen, may write or post things that are of interest to a certain age group, or post pictures, links, notes, etc. which make them seem like a person that is interested in the same things as another child or teen. To initiate contact, all a predator has to do is send the child a personal message, which can be sent regardless of whether they are a “friend” or not. If the child feels that, based on what the predator has said in their message, they can trust the sender they may add that person as a “friend,” essentially allowing them to view all of their personal information. Even if the youth has some privacy setting which block the predator from viewing their address or telephone number, they may share personal facts indirectly through pictures, school networks and current city features. Once a person has accepted another person as a “friend” and has allowed them access to their personal information, it is not hard to discover what their routines are, where they live, and who they tend to associate with.

Furthermore, applications such as Poynt, while effective in getting information to people in a certain geological location, also make it easy to track where people are, particularly because these applications can be synced with Facebook allowing all of the persons “friends” to see where they are. This is great for meeting up with friends or finding restaurants, but it also provides up to date information about where that person is; information that a predator may take advantage of to abduct or further lure a youth for their own criminal purposes. For this reason, it is particularly important to ensure that when these applications are used, that the person does not state that they are alone at that particular place as that information could further jeopardize their safety.

Due to the ease in which others can gain access to a child or youths personal information, it is important for parents to monitor their child’s online activities, particularly on social media sites, and also to have a good relationship with their child when it comes to discussing online safety and why it is important to be diligent when accepting “friends” you do not know and have not met in person before. The importance of talking about online safety and privacy cannot be stressed enough, particularly because advancements in technology have allowed internet access to leave the home via cell phones. It is possible for parents to monitor their child’s online activities on a home computer either physically or through internet filters, but when the child leaves the home, their access to the internet via cell phone is unlimited and the children themselves have to monitor their activities and know about the potential for other people to abuse them.

Consider the following example of a real situation in which a predator used social media to lure a young person into a horrid and tragic situation. This is clearly a worst case scenario about how social media can be misused by predators, but is true nonetheless:

  • In March of 2010 Ashleigh Hall was a young girl who lacked confidence and simply wanted a boyfriend. An online predator (who actually appeared as an emaciated, bald, bespectacled, 32 year old man missing most of his teeth when he appeared in court for Ashleigh’s murder), used the picture of a good looking, muscular, teenage boy as his Facebook profile picture, entered a fake age, and made up an occupation (labourer) to seem more like the trustworthy, attractive and interesting young man he was trying to portray himself as. Using this made up identity and a fictional name, Chapman took advantage of Ashleigh’s lack of confidence and began to show interest in her by sending her messages on Facebook. He then persuaded her to move their online activities to private chat rooms such as MSN messenger. After befriending her on these sites, Chapman asked her to meet him in person; Ashleigh agreed, thinking that she was going to meet an attractive boy of 16 who was genuinely interested in her. Tragically, the person she would meet would be convicted sex offender Peter Chapman, who would abduct, sexually assault, murder, and dispose of her body in a ditch near the town where she was living.

Bullying and Social Media

Cyber bullying has also emerged from the increased use of technology as a means of communication, and can be explained as occurring when an individual or group wilfully uses technological communication to harass or threaten another person. Two studies were done that looked at information collected by the Youth Internet Study Survey, and found that 9% of youth said they had been harassed online at some point in the last year, 28% said they had made rude/nasty comments to someone on the internet (increasing from 14%) and 9% (increasing from 1%) said they had used the internet to harass someone they were mad at. Clearly this shows that there is little doubt that social media sites are indeed being used to bully.

It is widely known that social media is easily accessible through computers and smart phone applications, and messages are easily and quickly relayed through these methods. It is also known that such portals allow a greater level of anonymity, as well as a larger audience. Indeed, rumours and vicious teasing can now be posted online for the whole world to see instead of just a few classmates, without bringing about a whole new level of humiliation to their victim.

Some argue that social media is directly contributing to bullying and that the sites on which it occurs should be held accountable. Possible solutions posited by those who take this view include banning young people from using these sites. Others insist that it is not the social media outlet itself that is a problem but rather the individual who is using the social media sites to bully. The solutions in this case should involve working with social media sites to combat bullying as well as in the education of those who are using the sites.

Consider the following examples of how bullies have used social media to harass others (examples are excerpts from posts on the Kids Help Phone online forum for children and teens who have been bullied):

  • “She posted a message on her Facebook page complaining about how bad it will be this year, because we are in a lot of the same classes. I don’t understand how she can still hate me, and I am nice to her. I don’t know what to do..”
  • “ok, well i have been on a fourm site called (edited) where you can talk about tamagotchis and there is a lot of cyberbullies there, one time someone sent me a dead seal photo, me and my fear of blood, i threw up. in the chat room some guy named “L” said “The world would be a better place without you.” what should i do???”
  • “…He posted other things about me on his Tumblr saying that me and my friend were begging him to stop doing what ever he’s doing. Saying that we were stupid for picking a fight with him, Saying he can beat us all up he can take all my friends down. i dont know if this is cyber bulling [but] this is getting really annoying the fact that he is showing everyone my facebook and posting my full name everywhere …this is really bothering me and my friend. what should [we] do? tried apologising for not doing anything, tried being nice to him but he thinks were stupid…”

Clearly these examples show some of the ways that social media has been exploited by bullies to further torment others with threats and comments. It is important to note, that just like physical bullying in the school play ground, bullying via virtual messages or social networks can be considered a crime in certain circumstances and the bully can be criminally charged for such actions.

Preventing Cyber Bullying

To prevent cyber bullying the Media Awareness Network has put together an important list of tips for kids and parents. Some of these tips also apply to general online safety as well. If a child finds him or herself in an online situation that makes them uncomfortable, some tips include:

  • Stop: leave the area or stop the activity (i.e. chat room, online game, instant messaging, social networking site, etc.).
  • Block the sender’s messages. Never reply to harassing messages.
  • Talk to an adult. If the bullying includes physical threats, tell the police as well.
  • Save any harassing messages and forward them to your Internet Service Provider (i.e. Hotmail or Gmail). Most service providers have appropriate use policies that restrict users from harassing others over the Internet – and that includes kids!
Other tips:
  • For younger kids, create an online agreement or contract for computer use, with their input. Make sure your agreement contains clear rules about ethical online behaviour.
  • Rules should deal with online interaction: never provide personal information and don’t share passwords with friends.
  • For teenagers, online social activity is intense. Therefore, this is the time to discuss the nature of your teen’s online interaction and, more specifically, his or her responsible use of Internet. “Sexting” can easily lead to cyber bullying, particularly if the relationship sours.
  • Teach them to never post or say anything on the Internet that they wouldn’t want the whole world – including you – to read.
  • Talk to them about reaching out to an adult at the first sign of a threat. Don’t take for granted that your child will: only 8 per cent of teens who have been bullied online have told their parents.
  • Teach your children that what goes on online is everyone’s business. Let them know that action must be taken when faced with cyber bullying. Not reporting it is tantamount to approving it.
  • Set the example with your own ethical online behaviour.
  • Watch out for signs that your child is being bullied online – a reluctance to use the computer or go to school may be an indication.
  • If the bully is a student at your child’s school, meet with school officials and ask for help in resolving the situation.
  • Report online bullying to your Internet or cell phone service provider. Most companies have Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) that clearly define privileges and guidelines for those using their services, and the actions that can be taken if those guidelines are violated. They should be able to respond to reports of cyber bullying over their networks, or help you track down the appropriate service provider to respond to.
  • Report incidents of online harassment and physical threats to your local police. Some forms of online bullying are considered criminal acts. It’s also a crime to publish a “defamatory libel” – writing something that is designed to insult a person or likely to injure a person’s reputation by exposing him or her to hatred, contempt or ridicule.

Conclusion

Advancements in technology have allowed people from all over the world to communicate with each other quickly and easily. Organizations and people dedicated to helping missing children and their families have taken advantage of the positive aspects of social media to rapidly disseminate information to as many people as possible. By spreading information about missing children and related issues via social media sites, these organizations have been able to much more effectively and broadly reach others with their cause. Advancements in technology such as location based applications and smart phones have also allowed the search for missing children to become more focused, as those within a specific geological area who may be able to assist the most are targeted with additional information about the child.

Unfortunately these advancements in communicative technologies and websites are also used for criminal purposes, and can actually put a person, particularly a child, at greater risk of being groomed, lured and abducted. Youths and their parents need to be diligent when sharing information to people on social media sites, as not everyone who uses these types of forums are who they say they are. Following the safety tips and keeping in mind the information from this article are both good ways to ensure that people who wish to hurt others, particularly children, are not able to do so.

Information on the Ashleigh Hall case: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1223709/Ashleigh-Hall-Weve-learned-terrible-lesson-says-mother-girl-killed-going-boy-met-Facebook.html

Missing Children’s Society of Canada Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/MissingChildrenSocietyofCanada

Information on location based software (Poynt): http://www.connectedworldmag.com/latestNews.aspx?id=NEWS110906062322577

Media Awareness Network tips for online safety/preventing cyber bullying: http://www.bewebaware.ca/english/cyberbullying.html

Kids Help Phone online forum for bullying: http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/forums/ViewForum.aspx?FORUMID=22

Information regarding social media safety issues:

Mason, K. L. (2008). Cyber bullying: A Preliminary Assessment for School Personnel. Psychology in the Schools, 323-348. (Youth Internet Study Survey).