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From posts to predators: are we putting our kids in danger?

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When we post back-to-school photos of our kids in their uniforms or tag them at particular locations, we may unknowingly compromise their safety. But though there’s no need to delete all your social media accounts, there are ways to protect your kids and still share special moments online, experts say.

It’s natural to celebrate such milestones on social media, but parents have been cautioned not to reveal too much. In an EWN article published last week, security expert and private investigator Cameron Robey warned that posting photos in which uniforms and therefore potentially schools can be identified, can make children “soft targets” for predators.

“When we post photos of our kids online, we often don’t realise just how much information we’re actually giving away,” social media lawyer Sarah Hoffman told the SA Jewish Report. Hoffman is the co-founder of Klikd, which helps teens and parents navigate social media safely.

“One photo alone may include information such as your child’s name, favourite sport, school name, new classmate, new teacher’s name, and so on. All these things add up to make a very easy and convincing entry point for a predator online.”

We need to adjust our traditional idea of who poses a potential danger to our kids, she says. “The predator in the digital age isn’t the typical dodgy guy lurking in the playground in an oversized trench coat. The predator in the digital age looks, sounds, and appears to have the same interests – even the same friends – as your children.”

Information from photos can easily be used as a casual entry point to start up a conversation on any interactive platform your child may use, Hoffman says. “For example, the predator can say, ‘I see you are at X school in the same class as Ben! I play soccer with Ben.’ making it all the more convincing that this is just another kid you want to be chatting to, anything but the dodgy guy lurking in the playground.”

In the EWN article, Robey also referred to a spike in kidnappings in Gauteng affecting people of all ages. In 2022, 2 104 cases of kidnapping were reported as opposed to 796 cases in 2021. But, CAP Chief Operating Officer Sean Jammy says one needs to keep such stats in perspective.

“To date, in CAP-covered areas, there hasn’t been a case reported of a targeted, criminally motivated kidnapping of a school-age child. Though CAP recommends that all sensible precautions are taken to ensure that the entire family is kept safe, we need to be careful not to be taken in by populist propaganda and scare tactics.”

Taking such precautions and safely sharing photos of your kids online starts with updating your privacy settings. “Remember, predators store the information shared – a pic of a child in a school uniform, holding their favourite tennis racquet, and so on and use it later when pretending to know your child in an innocent game of Roblox [an online game platform], for example,” says Hoffman.

“So, check your privacy settings to make sure your posts aren’t visible to the general public or to ‘friends of friends’.” A friend or grandparent may not have the same controls as you, which is why this is important. It’s best to check your spouse or parents’ settings too, says Jammy.

It’s also important to be discerning about who you connect with or allow to follow you online. “Check before you accept a friend – the online space is vast, and people aren’t always who they say they are,” says Jammy. “If you don’t know the person in real life, don’t accept their friend request.” You should also go through your existing friends list and remove anyone who may be a stranger or someone you don’t altogether trust.

“Think about what you’re really sharing when you pop that cute first day or week back-to-school pic,” says Hoffman. “Be careful of sharing sensitive information such as posting a school sports bag and school badges on a cap or uniform. You can blur these. Boarding schoolhouses in the background are also a huge giveaway, especially in the current grooming climate.” Turn off your location settings on social media too, Jammy advises.

Avoid posting your and your children’s actual birth dates, Hoffman says. This is to reduce the risk of identity theft and fraud. If you want to share birthdays, experts advise at the very least to conceal the year of birth.

Hoffman also stresses the importance of asking permission from other parents before posting photos of their children. It’s also important to put your child’s feelings first. “Consider every photo,” she says. “Really think about whether a photo is going to embarrass your child now or in the future. People comment directly on photos of children without them even knowing it.

“Remember, there’s no right or wrong, but all this information will form part of your child’s digital footprint,” Hoffman says. Prioritise their physical and emotional safety at all times.

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