Online privacy is only as strong as the posts, comments and geo-tracking updates attached to social media we use. Fortunately, for my sake, I've been quite invested in knowing the pros and cons of social media use, especially since my under-18 son has quite a following on his various accounts.
While most teens use social media for social reasons, in our home, mom and dad are staunch Facebook users for social reasons, but Spencer, not so much. His social media accounts are 99 percent used for communicating with fans and rarely with close friends or family as most teens do.
This has created some frustrations for him since he just wants to have a normal social life where things like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Vine and Google+ can be a version of phone-to-phone texting on steroids. He definitely texts his close friends and mom- and dad-approved new acquaintances, but it's presented challenges for us as parents anyway.
Having a son who is gaining popularity worldwide has created some necessary auditing of his social media and phone texts. Trust me, it's an outgrowth of his pursuit of singing and acting as a minor, but it's also something that I don't believe many parents really grasp about how invested in social media their children have become. Reading the random posts by teens that follow Spencer has opened my eyes to a generation of youth that desperately seek attention through a 140-character tweet to a total stranger or random connections they've made through social media. It's more likely that many teens connect to people they don't know on most of these accounts I've observed. How can a single teen have 2,500 followers when you calculate their schoolmates, family members and possible neighbors where they live? It's highly likely that there are a lot of strangers on the list -- people that share a common interest or mutual connection. It's the essence of social media to be honest.
So when my child has well over 50,000 of these types of connections, you can be certain that 99.9 percent of them are people he doesn't know and we've never met. This opens the door to some inevitable risk.
In early 2012 when we were exploring social media and posting his videos on Youtube, Spencer became a target of talent scouts and independent music industry professionals offering their services. Many of these contacts came through social media. This is a common story for most families of young artists we've networked with the past few years. In most cases, they were just annoying spam-like contacts hoping to gain a new client or one-time fee for their services. However, in a few instances we found that the inquiry was a bit darker in nature.
Spencer is an attractive, young man and, of course, has a sea of admirers on social media. Some are just hormone-filled teens expressing their undying love for him from countries around the world. To us (as parents) it's sweet and fun to see the admiration for him simply because he is an online popular artist. But when the admiration comes from an adult male or, in a few cases, an adult female well beyond Spencer's age, the creepy factor enters the picture and our instincts quickly take over to prevent a bad situation from starting.
One such incident involved a highly-intelligent and well-versed music industry executive who reached out to recruit Spencer for his exclusive mentoring program. He apparently was a multi-billionaire who helped the big three music labels (Universal, Sony and Warner) find blooming, young talent. His program involved a six-month development process wherein he would teach Spencer how to prepare for touring, songwriting, the physical aspects of being an artist and a plethora of other areas an emerging artist would need to learn. In the most traditional sense, he was an outsource A&R company which would prepare and package him for presenting to one of the big three.
Now keep in mind, at the time I was still learning a lot about what the music industry was about and when this fellow talked a very convincing bit of music related terms and namedropped plenty of past executives and artists he single-handedly helped launch, it was very mesmerizing. The bait from him was to have Spencer audition for his team of artists he's developing through a foundation-funded program. Each artist would receive about $250k in training, of which the artist would never be required to pay back because it was a philanthropic program to support the arts and young people. When I asked the tough questions along the way, I began to annoy the man and was accused of wasting his time with trivial points. When I inquired about his resume and referrals, he stated he was connected to the U.S. government for contracts with his normal business and his online presence was not available because he was under the Homeland Security privacy due to the nature of those government contracts. When I asked to see him on Skype and possibly meet as a family, he explained why that wouldn't be possible due to his immense travel schedule overseas. The more questions I asked, the more frightened we became that it was an elaborate hoax and a possibly stalker-like issue.
In further investigation of the man, I was able to uncover five more families of young male artists around the world that were given the exact same sales pitch. However, these families were much further down the line with him in the six-month program. One had written several songs and turned them over to the guy and actually gave him access to all the young artist's social media accounts. The man changed all the passwords and blocked him out of his own social media. Another family shared how the man required the young boy artist to do daily physical workouts in front of his skype camera while wearing tight-fitting bike shorts (a requirement of the man). The more we uncovered, the more we became convinced this man was dangerous. All five families, including ours, resorted to the FBI White Collar Crimes division (which handles online cyber-stalker threats) and within a month or two, all his online sites and communication were deleted and no longer visible. We didn't receive a direct reply from the FBI agent handling our case, but the fact that he disappeared proved that something happened.
I shared this story because it was a result of a simple social media inquiry that many young artists and families get sucked into. Beyond this, we've discovered a handful of fans that used social media to act coy about connecting with Spencer and found that it turned into a frightening stalking issue. At least two fans showed up in front of our home uninvited and only mildly known from social media general conversations between Spencer and them.
Since we've launched his public profile online, I have made it a policy that 100 percent of his conversations with anyone on any social media will be reviewed by me personally. In some highly antagonistic inquiries from bizarre fans, I've had to step in and either address them personally or simply block and delete them from his social media.
For practical advice, I'm including some suggestions about how to address social media disturbances that arise.
Twitter provides a few ways to reduce the cyber-bully and/or threats that may arise. First of all, you can always protect your tweets from general public viewing. This is the easiest way to maintain a stronger privacy from people. However, if you allow a person to follow you, the privacy disappears. The BLOCK feature on Twitter doesn't really do anything practical. The stalker or annoying account can still see your public tweets (and therefore know what you're saying and possibly doing). The only thing is really does is prevent them from following you. So unless you're set to PRIVACY on your tweets, the blocking of that person doesn't do much. It will hide their tweets about you from your own timeline, but it doesn't hide their tweets about you from anyone else on Twitter. So if they include your username in their tweet, you can do a SEARCH of your Twitter name and see that they are able to tweet about you even though you've blocked them. In our case, BLOCKING has been effective to send a warning that they need to back off. Twitter does allow you to report a user for the type of tweet they are sending, but apart from a serious safety risk, Twitter doesn't typically do much about it. There have been many users that get banned for the nature of their tweets, but it is likely only after multiple reports have been made. Twitter also has some pretty aggressive software intelligence to know accounts that are not safe or following normal activities compared to most online.
Facebook is a little different in that if you FRIEND someone, it is a mutual connection. On Twitter, it can be one way (you follow them or they follow you) or two-way (follow each other). On Facebook, when you have a FAN PAGE, it is different than a normal personal account. On a personal account, you can just unfriend and block a user. On a FAN PAGE, you can only ban the user from your FAN PAGE. This is essentially intended to be the same as blocking on a personal page, but it has a little bit of a different result. First of all, to BAN a user, you can only BAN them IF they make a post on your FAN PAGE. So suppose you notice a creeper just LIKED your fan page and you know they are up to no good. It isn't possible to BAN them from LIKING that page unless they communicate via a post. This simply means that they can monitor your statuses simply by liking your page. PAGES can be set to private viewing unless they LIKE the page or public. We have kept Spencer's pages public so people can see what kind of statuses he posts and become a fan by liking the page. There is no foolproof way to stop a stalker from seeing your statuses on Facebook, because it is just too easy to create multiple accounts and pose as someone different.
INSTAGRAM / VINE
These do not have as much risk (so far) for us compared to Twitter and Facebook. You can simply BLOCK someone on Instagram and they can't see your stuff. Vine is so new to us that we've not experienced anything concerning. The most potential damage we've seen on either of these social media is in the COMMENTS area of a post. You, as the user, can delete comments from your own posts on both. This seems to send a message to a fan if they see you deleted their post.
As a parent of a teen artist and actor, we have joined a helpful Facebook Group which has over 55 families with young artists and actors all working together to report stalkers and dangerous profiles they encounter on their child's social media. This group is highly helpful in being a voice of warning to help prevent risk for their child. It is a great resource to simply become aware of how to deal with some of the risk as well.
Another great site to consider is Trends and Teens. Paige is a great counselor and youthfully connected resource for parents and teens that are engaged in this social media culture we live in.
We do our best to allow Spencer to use social media for fun social reasons, but unfortunately, as long as he's pursuing his professional goal of being in the entertainment industry, we (he) will be restricted to a higher rate of risk than most.