Social media has been at the forefront of our lives for decades, influencing our daily routines and shaping how we live our lives.
And with roughly 4.48 billion people worldwide being active on social media last year, the impact of social media is more prevalent now than ever.
Its popularity can partially be attributed to the positive effect it has on our everyday lives, opening up communication and making far away loved ones feel much closer, but social media has also developed a reputation for having negative implications for users.
From leaking private data, online hacking, cyberbullying, and contributing to low mental health and self-esteem, these issues will only become increasingly common as the popularity of these applications continues to grow.
As new trends, technologies, and updates emerge on some of the world’s most popular online platforms, users need to be vigilant now more than ever before to protect themselves online.
So, ahead of Safer Internet Day on the 7th of February, digital resource provider Virtual College by Netex has spoken with cybercrime and internet safety expert, Stuart Hyde QPM, to discuss the dangers of social media apps.
“It’s easier to lose a sense of security and safety online than in the physical world. Online, it’s not easy to spot how safe you are. You can become at risk with any app – big or small, so you need to have a good idea of where your information is at all times”, Stuart explains.
Whilst in discussion with Virtual College, Stuart highlighted the dangers associated with particular types of social media applications, and how the ways in which you can cause potential harm to yourself whilst using them can be easily executed and overlooked…
A platform which has taken the world by storm, BeReal is speculated to be one of the fastest-growing social media apps in the world.
The social media app is centred around individuals posting unfiltered photos of their activities and themselves once each day, with a front-facing camera and back-facing camera shot taken simultaneously.
These images can be shared with a group of friends, whom you can select on the platform to choose who can view and react to your daily images.
This is an opportunity for many to show themselves in their rawest form, away from filters, but ‘Being Real’ can have serious consequences.
For example, if you receive the random notification to ‘Be Real’ while at work, you may find yourself taking pictures of private work information from your employer or clients without realising it, such as on your computer screen.
In fact, an expert at Cyber Data Law Solicitors has previously reported that showing any personal data is breaking data protection laws and this is a sackable offence.
Thus, it’s important for people to consider being real, whilst not being too real in the process…
Strava and Fitness Tracking Apps
With more than 100 million users recorded in May of 2022, Strava has arguably become one of the public’s most popular and trusted platforms for tracking runs, cycle rides, and other physical activities.
The app offers users the opportunity to track their routes, recording the distances and times taken as well as a GPS-accurate map of where they’ve been.
But according to Stuart Hyde, Strava can also have serious implications for your personal safety.
Stuart explains: “People know exactly where you take part in your daily run or cycle if you share your GPS-tracked routes, so if you’re starting from outside of your house, or even the end of your street, you could be exposing details of where you live to strangers on the platform”.
What’s more, the Strava app has also seen over 90 million photos being shared through its platform, something that can cause even further issues:
“If you take a photo of your bike, for example, people know exactly what you’re riding and, should this information fall into the wrong hands, this could mean that you’re more susceptible to theft, particularly if this is paired with information of the routes you often go on.”
So, while Strava may not be what many would consider a typical social media app, the risks associated with sharing on the platform are still prevalent and need to be considered when using it for your health and fitness goals.
Whilst many apps have the ability to track your location in one way or another, Snapchat is one of the apps that brought about a somewhat revolutionary approach to keeping track of your and your friends’ locations.
The application, which had 363 million daily active users worldwide in the first quarter of 2022, launched the ‘Snap Maps’ feature in June of 2017, which shows where your friends are at all times.
The feature is so exact that, when enabled, it allows people to zoom and find out exactly what town, and even street, a person is in. If someone is spending a large amount of time in a single location, especially at night, it makes it easily identifiable where their house may be.
This has led to some controversy surrounding the feature and many users now enable ‘ghost mode’, meaning that you can see where your friends are but they can’t see you.
Whilst avoiding the use of this feature might make users believe they are now protected from harm, they may still be overlooking that their location can also be tracked in other ways.
“Whether you enable the GPS feature or not, people can still work out the geography of any location in posted pictures.”
Stuart shared a personal example with Virtual College of an instance where a friend had
revealed their personal information without realising it.
“They posted a picture which had their dog in and who was wearing a collar and tag that included their mobile phone number, which could be seen easily. This just shows how easy it is to make these mistakes and overlook them, which is why vigilance is needed”.
Dating apps are a prime example of how social interactions and romantic relationships are shifting from the real to the virtual world and with over 6.5 million monthly downloads recorded in May of 2021 alone, Tinder is the most popular dating app in the world.
Followed by its competitors including the likes of Badoo and Bumble, dating apps are playing a huge role in how we maintain and form relationships with people all around the world, but Stuart advises that we need to be far more aware now about meeting people online.
He warns that those with unethical intentions on these apps are becoming much more convincing when trying to portray themselves as someone else and that we need to be more aware than ever that the people we may be forming romantic attachments to might not be who we think they are.
Stuart explains, “Whether it’s being exploited for money or sending explicit images, you need to be conscious of this at all times as sharing your personal information even with those you think you trust can have severe consequences later down the line”.
Having merged with the popular application Musical.ly in 2018, TikTok made its mark on the world from the get-go and was the most downloaded application globally in 2022, and one of the world’s most popular video-sharing platforms to date.
Whilst TikTok may seem harmless in the sense that its uses are strictly limited to uploading videos, with the ability to follow others as well as comment, like, and share their content, the app can still place its users in a vulnerable position.
The addition of adverts to social media, whilst not being a new concept, is producing highly-successful results for small e-commerce businesses and companies on TikTok specifically.
But with this comes illegitimate adverts coming from illegitimate companies as the app offers little moderation to the adverts that can be added to its site.
“With applications like TikTok, it’s not just its core purpose that people should be aware of, it’s everything that goes with it, like ads for instance”.
These adverts can crop up as videos themselves or links can be added to videos by accounts on the platform, which will redirect users to sites that claim to offer something beneficial or desirable to the user.
These can often lead to scams, whereby either the advert is fake and users will spend money on a non-existent product, or users may click on a link that appears safe but may direct them to a dangerous part of the internet.
Stuart mentions that one of the greater problems with this is that this is unregulated in the sense that if you have a problem, it’s difficult to know who to go to follow this up.
Thus, even for more external aspects of social media apps, like adverts, users need to remain savvy to protect their online safety.
Stuart Hyde ended his conversation with Virtual College by highlighting the need for everyone to have a good idea of where their information is going, and what it is being used for, at all times in order to prevent the risk of being exploited by unethical practices.
He emphasises, “There is a need for governments across the globe to invest more and to work harder to set regulations for social media usage as the pool of users grows, because this will only mean that more users will be making mistakes that exploit their vulnerabilities.”
Sarah Baker, Managing Director at Virtual College by Netex, also added: “With cyber attacks and breaches becoming more frequent in UK businesses, now more than ever organisations need to be aware of how their information can be targeted, and what they can do to protect it.
“Processes such as GDPR data protection and how to maintain the confidentiality of workplace information are essential to understand, and companies should of course be applying this same understanding and standards whilst using social media applications in the workplace, whilst assessing the specific risks that may be associated with this.”
Virtual College is an online learning provider that offers cyber security courses to its clients in order to better understand the importance of cyber security and how they can ultimately protect themselves using e-safety practices. The company also offers e-safety courses for those looking to expand their knowledge of the dangers of being online and how to safeguard groups.
Virtual College and Stuart Hyde want to direct anyone who has experienced an online crime or instance of fraud to contact Action Fraud UK, the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, which can be contacted 24/7 at 0300 123 2040.