If you wouldn’t put it up on a billboard on the N1 or M3, don’t put it up on social media. That’s the message to consumers of social media from Taryn Hinton, legal adviser and co-ordinator of Media Monitoring Africa’s Reporting on Children in the Media course.
“People seem to think there’s a different set of rules that apply online. If you defame someone online, it’s the same as in print but you are more likely to reach a far broader audience on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. There’s no such thing as anonymity - you’re always able to be tracked. Once it’s out there, it’s been seen and it can be shared, reposted or screen-grabbed.”
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In South Africa, 16 million people use Facebook, 7.7 million are on Twitter and 6.1 million are on LinkedIn, according to the Ornico SA Social Media Landscape report for 2018. By using these platforms, these millions of social media users unknowingly expose themselves to possible lawsuits.
Simon Colman, executive head of digital distribution at SHA Specialist Underwriters, warns: “Increased usage of social media platforms on mobile phones has further increased the ease of with which people can post to any social media platform. It simply takes one, usually unintentionally, offensive post to spark an outrage on social media platforms, which can lead to major defamation or invasion of privacy legal actions.”
He says some of the most embarrassing social media faux pas have happened because someone took a screen grab of “private posts” and then circulated it. “Closed” community and parenting groups, and private users with locked-down privacy settings on Facebook, are also at risk.
"Just because you’ve restricted access to friends and family, doesn’t mean they won’t pass on the info without permission. If it’s private, don’t post it.”
The consequences can be devastating, according to a report last year from Austria in which a teenager was said to have sued her parents for posting over 500 of her childhood pictures (which included ones of her getting her nappy changed and while potty trained), without consent, to Facebook, which she found humiliating.
The 18-year-old told an Austrian newspaper, The Local: “They knew no shame and no limit - and didn’t care whether it was a picture of me sitting on the toilet or lying naked in my cot - every stage was photographed and made public.”
The teenager had asked her parents to remove the photos, but they refused, believing since they had taken them, they had the right to post them to their more than 700 Facebook friends.
The case is the first of its kind in Austria and while subsequent reports have cast doubts on its veracity, the risks of sharing personal information on a public platform are becoming more apparent. In France, it’s illegal to post pictures of children online due to strict privacy laws. Parents face fines of up to 45000 (R740898) and a year’s jail time for posting intimate pictures of their children, without permission.
A recent University of Michigan study found children aged 10 to 17 were “really concerned” about how freely their parents shared their children’s lives online.
“I think we’re going to get a backlash in years to come from young people coming to realise that they’ve had their whole lives, from the day they were born, available to social media,” Professor Nicola Whitton of Manchester Metropolitan University told The New York Post.
“Parents have to work out what’s right for them, but be aware that this is another person, another human being, who may not thank them for it in 15 years to come.”
Online sharing about parenting, also known as sharenting, is allowing parents to shape their children’s digital identity long before they’re able to open their first e-mail, noted Stacey B Steinberg, a legal skills professor from the University of Florida, in a paper titled “Sharenting: Children's Privacy in the Age of Social Media”.
“The disclosures parents make online are sure to follow their children into adulthood. Indeed, social media and blogging have dramatically changed the landscape facing today’s children as they come of age.”
Colman says parents need to educate themselves and their children that sharing is not always caring. “It’s been described as a digital tattoo. (Think about the) long-term impact of a social media reputation. Kids are posting inappropriate content of themselves, not considering the ramifications on future relationships, job applications etc.”
People disclose more about themselves online than they are prepared to in person, Hinton says, citing a Web Rangers cyber-bullying study in Asia in which children who said derogatory things about someone were asked to write those on a piece of paper and hand them personally to their target. “At the end of the day, no one had done that. So if you’re not willing to do that in person, don’t do it on Facebook.”
To borrow from the Las Vegas catchphrase - what happens in your private Facebook group, doesn’t necessarily stay on that group. So think before you post embarrassing pictures and anecdotes. Hinton warns: “Just because it’s true, doesn’t make it not defamatory. You’re also putting your kids at risk. People don’t realise that you can access the photo and find its location - you’re putting them at physical risk. If you put anything online that identifies them, you put them at risk from paedophiles.”
Don’t ever put pictures of naked children online or “sexy” pictures of your child in a bikini or such because you never know who the audience is online. Hinton warns Facebook’s settings are at their maximum for children but as an adult user, when the social network does updates, you might lose some of your settings and your posts would be available for the world to see.
Ultimately, you’re the guardian of your children’s reputations. “Parents are not always educated. They don’t realise their children could access their profiles etc. If a parent is sharing that their kids are drinking, bunking or doing something else they shouldn’t, you don’t know who is seeing it and they could be getting into trouble at school,” she says.
“There’s no anonymity. It can be linked to you. Once it starts, it’s hard to stop.”
* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected]
** Do you feel your rights as a consumer have been violated? Contact details for various ombudsman who deal with consumer issues can be found at http://www.toasa.org.za