Social media check: How to become your family’s “Internet crossing guard”

People of all generations are embracing social media: we want to interact with others, to know what they are doing and talking about. Today, dozens of social platforms and messenger applications promise us the ability to do this instantly. Research shows that people today spend up to two hours each day on social media sites, adding up to more than five years over the course of a lifetime. Not surprisingly, teens are the most active group.1 And while social media can help us connect with families and friends both near and far, it can also leave us exposed to new risks we may not have imagined before.


The start of my social story


Three years ago, I was in the thick of studying for an insurance designation, and a yearlong research project served as the base of my thesis. I chose to focus on creating awareness around social media and how to navigate the dangers of its environment.

To be clear, my focus wasn’t on “cyber” related exposures, such as identity theft, ransomware (cyber extortion), and social engineering (the accessing of accounts and stealing funds). That’s not to say that education around these risks isn’t important…it absolutely is. New information and data around cybercrimes is in the headlines almost daily, and over the past few years I’m happy that many insurance providers have begun offering coverage for these exposures through their homeowner’s policies. (If your insurance carrier offers a form of cyber coverage, my advice is buy it—we are all exposed and cybercriminals are only becoming craftier.)

I focused on social media because I believe there is critical need to shine a light on the evolving issues surrounding social. Even where there is awareness, many people are turning a blind eye because they don’t think “it will happen to them.” In fact, my research indicates that thinking is far from the case. Here are a few examples:

  • Children’s access to social media occurring at younger ages—some own phones as young as the age of 7.2
  • Cyberbullying is having a growing negative impact on children—in the most tragic cases, it can lead to suicide, which is now is the 3rd leading cause of death among young people, resulting in 4,600 deaths per year.3
  • Even so, few parents are worried that their child will be either the wrongdoer or the victim of social media aggression.4
  • Parents are taking legal action against schools for bullying and child suicide—between 2009 and 2015, such action resulted in nearly $1.5 million in verdicts.5
  • Parents are being held liable for children’s online defamation (cyberbullying)—36 defamation suits were filed between 2006 and 2015, resulting in $86 million in verdicts.6
  • There is a lack of awareness about coverage for cyberbullying—Rough Notes magazine advises parents to be vigilant, explaining “these adverse acts of children are the easiest way for them to lose their entire assets…”7 This is one reason why it is a good idea not only to purchase cyber coverage, but to talk to your agent to understand how cyberbullying is covered under your policy.


Social’s serious side


The above mentioned are serious risks, and the community needs to educate themselves about how they and their children may be exposed. To help do just that, I’ll share what I believe are some of the most urgent issues where greater education and awareness are necessary:

  1. Understand that information you post could be visible to anyone.

    Social media brings a new “stranger danger”: Both parents and kids need to be aware that information and photos of the family shared online may be visible well beyond their friend lists. There are a lot of bad actors on the internet, some of which canvas social media and may watch social pages for photos, such as those parents post of their children. A lot of information can be easily searched online without too much difficulty: a family’s address, for instance, or the school they attend, and can be used to locate you or your children. (Many parents even proudly advertise their children’s activities on the bumpers of their very own cars, “My daughter is a soccer player at Heights High School”). That’s why it’s important to be aligned as a family and understand that anything you post could be seen by the wrong people.

  2. Mobile or gaming apps may not be regulated.

    Apps for texting, meeting, or gaming are used commonly by kids, but many of these apps are not regulated. This means they can be accessed by anyone, include dangerous individuals who may pose as a peers. It also means that their content may not be regulated, so they may include inappropriate images and language, drug and alcohol references, and cyberbullying. It’s not just enough to know which apps your kids are using; it’s also a good idea to know who your children are interacting with on these types of apps.

  3. Social media can make it easier for bullies to hide.

    The Cyberbullying Research Center indicates that 33.8 percent of teens they surveyed between the ages of 12 and 17 have been cyberbullied.8 The reality is that the world of social media can make it very easy for bullies to speak damaging words without facing their victims. Too many tragic headlines over the past several years have indicated the damaging effects this can have: from psychological damage to suicide. Currently, there is no national law against cyberbullying. However, advocates have worked for tougher laws and, in most states, laws have been established, including criminal sanctions, school sanctions, and mandatory school policies.9 Coverage for cyberbullying may be offered within a Cyber endorsement for purchase by some homeowner’s insurance providers, and can help cover expenses such as counseling, tuition, tutoring or temporary relocation expenses.

  4. Be aware of online defamation exposures.

    Anyone can fall victim to defamation exposures, which can extend from cyberbullying to online harassment, cyber-stalking, Internet trolls and more. Consider what you post online: comments that you make, even inadvertently, could be perceived as libelous, and could open the door to a potential case for defamation.

    Check your homeowners or renters policy to make certain it contains personal injury liability, which traditionally covers allegations against libel, slander and defamation. Ask your agent to explain the coverage, including if and how online defamation/social media aggression is covered. Some insurance carriers have begun limiting coverage, including limiting coverage to only minor children. As with most types of coverage, personal injury does contain exclusions. If the act is deemed as “intentional,” coverage may not be extended, as well, mental anguish emotional injury claims are typically excluded. This coverage is not “automatic,” and research finds that only 5% of all homeowner’s policies contain coverage, according to Robin Olson of IRMI.10 As well, if you carry personal injury, your liability policy may respond.

Ten things to do


When I present this information to various audiences, there is always surprise in the room at some of these risks. This information is eye-opening and real, and people “need to know what they don’t know,” so that they can take action.

So, what can you do to help protect yourself and your family?

  1. Acknowledge that “There is no such thing as privacy for children,” in the words of Rich Wistocki, retired Chicago cybercrime detective.
  2. Have brave discussions with children about the dangers within social media and their responsibilities as users. Check phones regularly, and check them with your child. (Under 50% of parents say they ever check their children’s phones, or even ‘friend’ them on social media).11
  3. Refrain from posting photos and information on your family online. If you must do so, make certain that you understand how to secure the privacy settings on the platform you’re using, so that only people you give permission are able to view them.
  4. Teach children digital citizenship. Children watch every move their parents make, and parents need to model this behavior for kids to follow.
  5. Learn the tech world—get cyber-wise now. Saying, “I don’t understand all that new tech stuff,” won’t cut it. As the parent, it is your responsibility to be educated.
  6. Establish an “internet safety” contract with children. Lay ground rules for their responsibilities and stick to the consequences that are outlined.
  7. Talk with other parents, especially those who are parents of your kids’ friends. Ask questions when something is in question, and share your awareness.
  8. Talk with teachers and school administrators about the environment they’re seeing, and how they are monitoring students and their activity.
  9. If your children’s school hosts an educational session on internet safety…attend!
  10. Nothing takes the place of a parent regularly monitoring children’s phones themselves, but minimally consider using a parental monitoring platform—there are several available.

With social media sites accounting for nearly a third of user’s online time today, it doesn’t appear that the environment for social media risk is going to lessen anytime soon.12 If you were teaching your kids to walk across the street, would you hold their hand in the crosswalk? Become their “internet crossing guard.” It is one of the most important jobs a parent will ever have.

Finally, for adults, borrowing a quote from a victim of online defamation, Sue Scheff, I’ll close by saying, “let your keystrokes reflect a legacy of kindness, you won’t regret it.”13

Kim Lucarelli is SVP, Director of Personal Client Management, Oswald Companies. She holds Certified Advisor of Personal Insurance (CAPI) and Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) designations.

6Kingdollar, Charlie. “Increasing Personal Injury Exposures – Nothing to LOL About”.” Gen Re™ Insurance Issues, Apr, 2012.
10Olson, Robin. Personal interview, 25 Aug 2015.