Safer Internet Day: Tips for staying safe online

February 2021

To mark Safer Internet Day, we wanted to share these tips written by WAY member Alyson to raise awareness about internet safety and to help other young widowed people to stay safe online. 

“Would you mind going on a picnic with me?”

This was a question posed to me whilst I was interacting with WAY’s Big Picnic Instagram post a few years ago. My reaction – fury, leading to a dissing response from me to the person who completely disregarded the context of the post.

Unfortunately, the calm and nine-times-out-of-ten collected me flew out of the window, as did all awareness that I was using a platform which anyone in the world could read. WAY’s reaction – to delete the inappropriate question. Thank you, WAY! I too deleted my reactive post, once my usually calm returned and order was restored.

Unlike WAY’s closed Facebook group, where members are approved prior to being accepted, Instagram is an open platform that relies on users being safety savvy.

An innocent or inappropriate question?

Within just a few seconds of reading the offending invitation, I had concluded the latter, not just based on my gut reaction, but also by doing a few simple checks that can raise red flags:

-          The account profile only had 6 followers yet was following 600.

-          The account profile only had 3 photos uploaded, which implies it had been quickly set up and was not legitimate.

-          The account’s privacy settings were open for anyone to see, meaning you can view it without being accepted. I must stress this can be the case for bona fide accounts; however in this instance, it did not bode well.

-          The profile picture was of a considerably older man with the account tag line ‘love hard, love life’. Perhaps a tag line aimed to strike a chord with widows?

-          I did not know this man and he found my account by my interaction with a post aimed at widows.

My gut reaction that I was being mindlessly preyed on was confirmed.

I must stress that it is perfectly normal to receive ‘follow’ requests from people on Instagram. I receive these from both sexes, from strangers and from people I know – in particular if I have just started following a new account or I am interacting more via well-known accounts.

This is normal, so how do I protect myself on Instagram? How do I become social media savvy?

Privacy settings on Instagram

I ensure that my account privacy settings are set to a level with which I am comfortable – private, to be seen by friends whom I have accepted to follow my account. I have a strict ‘If I wouldn’t go out for a coffee with you’ I decline your friend request – some people might see this as overly harsh, but 105 coffee dates is enough caffeine for anyone.

I use my Instagram account as a baby book continued, posting pictures and videos for friends and family to see, but most importantly for my little boy to read and to hear my voice if something should happen to me. This to me is private. I’m sure I have missed out on accepting potential new friends, and I’m sure I am missing out on broadening my social life, but this sits comfortably with me as I know I am safe.  I also don’t accept my friends’ teenage children as they move into the world of social media; I often post exactly how I am feeling and I don’t want to alter what I post because of them.

Safety on social media

So is this a problem purely just for Instagram?

Not at all, this can be experienced across all social media platforms, and indeed on some areas of the internet in general, such as comments sections. I must stress at this point that, although WAY has a closed Facebook group which sees members going through checks prior to being accepted to make sure they are who they say they are, WAY also has a public social media presence to help to reach out to people who’ve been widowed – including a public Facebook page, Twitter feed and Instagram. Members of the public can and do follow these public pages so you should tailor your posts accordingly. This leaves the question, are you safe on social media?

I believe that it is possible to access social media in a safe way, by taking a few sensible precautions. Here are my top tips:

-          Avoid adding your location, known as geotagging, to posts. If your settings are open, this can notify people of your whereabouts but also of your ‘where you aren’t!’ – location tagging your holiday photos tells people that you aren’t at home. The function to automatically include your location can be turned off at any time in the settings of most platforms. Geotagging can also give people a mapping of your weekly activity – if you regularly post a map of your Wednesday night runs, this tells people where you are, which in turn gives a map to your ‘I’m not at home’ or ‘where to find me’ red flags.

-          Be mindful of the content of your photo. Put your bank card away before taking that ‘just checked in’ photo at the pub, and cover up your house number on your ‘new home’ celebratory post.

-          Keep your personal details to a minimum; would you give a stranger walking down the street your date of birth, telephone number and email address? If they have this and your ‘new home’ post with tagged location, that is a lot of personal information to hand over so easily!

-          Think about you profile, the photos and the text you post in its entirety, being mindful of previous posts too – look at your account with fresh eyes, how much personal information can one person glean from your account?

It's in your hands

In conclusion I would say that the power to be social media and internet savvy is in the hands of the user. Be mindful of the levels of security you have set and use your account accordingly. Remember, the press can lift content from any social media account which has public privacy settings without seeking permission. Before posting, you could ask yourself, ‘would I be happy to see this on the front page of a newspaper’ before deciding whether to post.

If your account is public, then you are releasing the content to the entire world – something we often forget when uploading from the comfort of our living room!

It is also fair to say that social media and dating apps do open up a whole world of dating opportunities, a lot of which will be kosher, should this be of interest to you. Just bear in mind, however, that communicating via technology can often be very different from face-to-face communication. And be wary of any unsolicited approaches. If in doubt, block the person who is paying you unwanted attentions. And/or report them to the social media platform in question.

WAY wants all of our members and followers to stay safe – and that includes being online. After all, social media can be a great way to find friendship, companionship, love or to combat loneliness.