WVU researcher studies effects of online

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image: New findings from a West Virginia University researcher may make parents think twice about posting photos of their children on social media. Not only does this raise questions about consent and privacy, but it also makes children vulnerable to online predators, the researcher determined.
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Credit: (WVU Photo/Jennifer Shephard)

With the back-to-school season in full swing, parents might want to think twice about posting their kids’ ‘first day of school’ photos on social media, based on West Virginia University to research.

Although posting pictures of children — also known as “sharing” — might seem like a fun and easy way to share, studies by Laurel Cookresearcher in social marketing and public policy, show that sharing such information presents significant risks.

Cook, associate professor of marketing at the John Chambers College of Commerce and Economicsstudies these risks with his colleagues, and his research, published in The consumer newspaper, reveals that sharing is a much more common problem than most caregivers realize. Not only does this raise questions about consent and privacy, but it also makes children vulnerable to online predators.

Why we share

The desire to share comes naturally.

“It’s kind of like having bragging rights,” Cook said. “But it’s shared with a much wider audience.”

There is also a chemical component. Positive social interactions, a comment or a “like” on a post, can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine causes a feeling of reward which, in turn, reinforces the behavior. The more likes a user receives, the more likely they are to post again.

The pandemic has also changed the way Americans use social media. Virtual interactions have replaced face-to-face interactions for adults and children. These, in turn, have led to increased vulnerability. Cook said many parents didn’t grow up with the internet and aren’t aware of the risks, the biggest of which is predatory behavior.

“Much of the fodder for pedophiles is not manufactured,” she said. “It comes from the parents, from these public messages.”

She presents a simple and disturbing analogy: “If we saw a random guy staring out our child’s window, what would our reaction be? Think about this situation online. The only difference is the physical domain versus the virtual domain.

Parents and guardians often assume that strict privacy settings will limit the post’s audience, but once a photo is online, anyone who views the image can save and/or share it. Likewise, schools and camps frequently post pictures of students as part of promotional materials, and they too may not be aware of the risks.

In addition to a child’s safety, sharing raises questions about consent. Unlike privacy-conscious parents, many social media influencers include their children in their content for profit.

“It’s very obvious that there’s no real consent with a lot of these kids,” Cook said. “The opinion that my colleagues and I have is that if the child is not able to understand and give consent – regardless of age – then all of this information should probably be kept confidential.”

She suggests not posting anything too personal; events such as birthday parties may be shared after the fact, and caregivers should be careful not to disclose the dates, times or locations of these events.

Gather data

Social media platforms and third-party websites collect user data. This data may come from shared content and is used to track personally identifiable information. Collection can begin even before a child is born and creates a digital footprint that follows them throughout their lives.

“A lot more people have access to information about a minor than I think the world knows,” Cook said.

Personally identifiable information may include name, social security number, and date of birth, but not all data collected is demographic. Some are psychographics, describing people based on their psychological attributes. This can include a user’s personality, the type of sites they frequent, or their buying behaviors.

Still, it’s not a child’s future search engine results that researchers are most worried about.

“It’s the fact that No. 1, there’s no consent,” Cook said. “No. 2, information sharing can be used for nefarious purposes in some cases, and there’s a commercial component to that. So there’s money exchanging hands for these kinds of images and videos. And then No. 3, now it has become even more socially accepted to be commodified. Thanks to sponsorships, influencer parents are now profiting from the use of images of their children online.

Dark design

Along with his research on sharing, Cook looked at dark design, an intentionally misleading user interface designed to manipulate users into giving consent to data collection, among other things. This manipulation can be as simple as the choice of colors. A user might visit a site like Instagram and be presented with two buttons. The A button, which requests permission to personalize ads, is bright blue and sounds appropriate to the user. The B button, which frames a choice as less personalized, is dark and easy to ignore.

Alternatively, the dark design may trick the user, who may be a child, into sharing their personal information, which in turn may be used to encourage them to sign up for emails and services or perform online shopping. Cook said a child’s digital footprint can include nuggets of information harvested like their Little League team, their love of certain foods and their favorite apps.

Shaping politics

Regulators and policy makers are just beginning to understand how much data exists for each user.

“That’s why I’m working with a variety of legal experts on this project, because this idea of ​​consent is still legally debated,” Cook said. “Policymakers in the UK and the US need to have a common understanding of what consent means.”

These laws in the European Union are stricter than those in the United States, where data collection is largely under-regulated. However, she is encouraged to see US lawmakers actively drawing on empirical research and applying it to policymaking.

Cook’s team also reached out to experts in psychology and sociology to collaborate, though some were hesitant to work with a marketer.

“A lot of people think marketing is bad, like trying to promote a product.”

However, once she explained the purpose of her request, collaborators joined in the discussion. The team is now working with international advocacy groups to better understand the issues and disseminate information.

Ultimately, Cook’s goal is to help parents and caregivers navigate the challenges of sharing.

“That’s what makes me excited every day to know that my work isn’t just theory,” she said. “It’s something that could move the dial a bit, to help change things or at least raise awareness and find solutions. I want this environment for children and adolescents to be addressed. I’m very passionate about that.


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