A couple of weeks ago, I started a discussion on internet safety over on my Instagram feed. It reminded me of some things I’d rather forget, and renewed my conviction that staying safe while enjoying the Internet is a difficult yet oh-so-necessary task to get right.
I’ve never publicly shared either of my experiences of being stalked. Both times were traumatic in different ways, and both have left their mark on me. I’m pleased to have turned these marks into good, now knowing important things about how to stay safe and being able to share these with others.
Both incidents lasted several months. Both involved physical stalking and online harassment. They have meant that certain places or words still make me nervous. (I won’t go further than this in public: neither individual needs any more of my time or space. But if you are worried about a situation or have experienced something you need to process, please feel free to reach out.)
But what, amazingly, joins these two cases together is that neither was successful in breaking into my personal life. My safety has never been jeopardised. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that.
So, because I love what the Internet has brought us but also recognise that it can make us more vulnerable, I am sharing my top three tips for staying safe while enjoying online activities. Social media, in particular, has brought with it new ways for people to develop unhealthy (and criminal) habits or to exploit vulnerability. So just as boundaries are healthy and expected in the ‘physical world’, so they are in your online life.
- Location, location, location. Never share details about where you are – your address, a picture of your front door, your workplace in some cases, your neighbourhood, your number plate, your child’s school uniform. Don’t be traceable. When I was stalked, I was incredibly relieved to know that I had never shared online where I lived.
- Don’t share patterns. Don’t talk online about where you go every Thursday or your favourite Saturday brunch spot. If you use public transport, don’t share the usual route or time of your journey. This may seem arbitrary, but it is precious to have your ‘places’ and keeping them private means you won’t have to change them if something does go wrong. Similarly, don’t post in real time, especially if you are somewhere alone. Instagram can wait: your safety can’t.
- Be mindful of other people. I look like Gemma No Mates on my social channels – because my friends haven’t chosen to be followed by the people who follow me, I don’t think it’s fair to expose them. If I do want to share something, I will ask permission. When it comes to children, be extra mindful. A good test is to ask yourself if you’d be happy for the content you’re sharing that involves your kids to be broadcast on the evening news (and always underestimate your privacy settings). Another helpful thing is to consider, regardless of safety, what they will think in 15 years: will they want a photo of their bare bum to be online?*
Rather than scare you, I hope these simple tricks will empower you to use social media with confidence. I love what the Internet has brought us. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy its benefits.
*Recent studies, which examine the new phenomenon of parents who’ve grown up on social media, suggest children want to feature less on their parents’ channels.