Safer Internet Day 2021

Common mistakes we all make, and how to rectify them

This guest piece was written for both Autistic UK and ALN-Cymru Home Education and Educated Other Than At School (HE & EOTAS) for those who need more information about how to keep themselves (and their loved ones) safe online.

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We all like to think we know exactly what we’re doing online, but the truth is we could probably all make some changes to better protect ourselves and our loved ones. Here are some common mistakes we could all make when using the internet, and some quick and easy ways to rectify them.

Using the same password for everything

I get it: you have a hundred different accounts, there’s no way you’d remember that many unique passwords, and nobody has the time to manually change them all. So ask yourself: which accounts would I most hate to lose? Personally, I wouldn’t care much if I lost the account for a forum I haven’t posted on for years, but if I lost my email or my online photo albums I’d be screwed.

Once you’ve identified your most precious accounts, log in and find the Security settings (often this can be found by clicking on your username and selecting something like ‘manage my account’). Even if you really don’t want to change your password, there will usually be something you can do here to make your account more secure (and aid in recovering it should it ever get hacked).

Top Tips:

  • Ensure your details (particularly phone number) are up-to-date.
  • Enable 2 step verification: your password will no longer be enough to access your account. If signing in from a new device or browser it will also text you a code to prove it’s really you.

I know I shouldn’t use the same one for everything, but I have trouble remembering multiple passwords.

Don’t worry; you’re not alone. But there are a few simple tricks you can still implement. Let’s say my password is bakedbeans

  • Add capitals, symbols and numbers: Baked.Beans123
  • Add the first few letters of the website to your password. For example, my Facebook password could be Baked.Beans123face while my Twitter password could be Baked.Beans123twit
  • Install a password manager app such as LastPass. This will save many a headache as you’ll never need to remember another password again: it auto-generates complicated passwords for everything, stores them securely, and inserts them for you. All you’ll need to remember is your one master password which unlocks the app. LastPass has a mobile app too, so you can access your passwords even if you’re away from your computer.

Not Switching Off

Did you know that part of your brain can’t distinguish between the stress of being on the lookout for a sabretooth tiger and the stress of being ‘on call’ for message notifications? As far as it’s concerned, you need to maintain vigilance so it’ll keep you from getting too relaxed until it feels the situation is over.

“These constant alerts jolt our stress hormones into action, igniting our fight or flight response; our heartbeats quicken, our breathing tightens, our sweat glands burst open, and our muscles contract. That response is intended to help us outrun danger, not answer a call or text from a colleague.” [1]

Now, that’s useful if you ever find yourself in a dangerous situation, but it’s a lot less helpful when you carry the source of that stress around with you 24/7.

“It sends our brain into overdrive, triggering anxiety and stress, and at the very least, hyper-vigilance, which is meant to protect ourselves from predators, not the phone,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez PsyD, a licensed psychologist and professor at Columbia University in New York City, tells Bustle. “The alerts from phones or even the anticipation of them, shuts off the prefrontal cortex that regulates higher-level cognitive functions, and instead, forces the brain to send emergency signals to the body.” [2]

Top Tips:

  • Disable stressful notifications.
  • Change others to something less intrusive (turn that loud ‘PING!’ into a gentle, brief chime).
  • Set “sleep times” on your device, or have periods when you enable Do Not Disturb mode with emergency exceptions (that way you don’t run the risk of missing urgent calls).

Eternal Scrolling

You know when you’re reading in bed and your eyelids get heavy, but you say to yourself “I’ll just finish this chapter before I put the book down”? That doesn’t work when you’re scrolling through social media. There is no end of the chapter. Go to sleep; the internet will still be there when you wake up.

Furthermore the blue light will keep part of your brain active, making it harder to enter deep sleep when you do finally drift off.

“Blue light suppresses the body’s release of melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel drowsy. While this may be helpful during the day, it becomes unhelpful at night when we’re trying to sleep. Being exposed to blue light in the evening can trick our brain into thinking it’s still daytime, disrupting circadian rhythms and leaving us feeling alert instead of tired.” [3][4]

Some people find it helpful to not keep their phone charger beside their bed to remove this temptation.

Acting Before Reading Closely

I was sitting in the front room when my phone buzzed: “We just tried delivering your parcel but you weren’t home. Please click here to arrange redelivery.” I was furious! I’m right by the front door; there’s no way I missed the doorbell. That delivery driver is a liar! I was so fuelled by moral indignation that I almost didn’t check before clicking the link… it was a scam.

Acting before taking the time to investigate is so easy to do, and it can have disastrous consequences. We are much more vulnerable to this trick when we’re angry. “What an injustice! Take action! Sign this petition! Retweet this!”…whenever you see something like this, take a breath and a step back, and see the whole picture first. Is this angry Twitter message accurately representing the situation, or are they just swept up in somebody else’s misinformed outrage? Oftentimes it’s the latter.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Seen an outrageous article? Before you share it…

  • Read the full article. Headlines can be misleading.
  • Check the date. Is it recent? If not, is there a follow-up story you should read first?
  • Is it satire? Sites like The Onion, Satiria, The Babylon Bee, etc are comedy websites written in the style of actual news articles.
  • Is it reported on multiple, unrelated news sites?

Seen a great offer? Before you buy it…

  • Google the company and read some reviews. Sites like TrustPilot are great for this.
  • Even if you know it’s legit, taking the time to think before hitting Buy is still a good idea. There might be a discount code available (Honey is a great place to check).

Got a message telling you to input your password, credit card details, etc?

  • Follow it up independently. Instead of following the link in the email, open a web browser and navigate to e.g. the National Lottery website and sign in that way.
  • Look for legal blurb at the bottom of the email. If there isn’t any, be concerned.
  • Poor spelling and grammar are often a dead giveaway that an email is a scam and not official.
  • Look at the email address (not just the name) of the sender. Does it look official?
  • Hover your mouse cursor over links to see the URL. If it says the link is to Amazon, you’d expect the link to begin with ‘https://www.amazon.co.uk/’. If it begins with something completely different, be wary.

Mistaking the Internet for Real Life

Social media is an echo chamber by design (all this means is you tend to surround yourself with and follow like-minded people). Its algorithms will bring things you’ve expressed a prior interest in to the forefront of your attention until they’re almost all you see. Engaged with a few posts about cats? Pretty soon you’ll see a disproportionate number of posts about cats. That’s not to say the topics you read about aren’t important, but be aware they are likely over-represented. What seems like a huge problem among your mutuals on Twitter may be a very real problem, but it possibly isn’t as big (or well-known) as your Twitter experience makes out. Log on with a different account to test this theory if you’re not sure: often, if it’s a well-known pressing issue then more groups of people will be talking about it, not just your bubble.

Top Tips:

  • That Instagram picture of your friend with the perfect life is not indicative of reality. To paraphrase Steven Furtick: Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.
  • The more you engage with a topic on social media, the more of that topic you’ll see. Read depressing news, the more depressing news it’ll give you. Engage with at least one positive post (this can be as simple as Liking a cute video or something) to counter each depressing one so your timeline doesn’t look like it’s the apocalypse.

Reading the comments

Here’s a rule: if you’re likely to feel angry or upset about divisive comments on a particular topic, don’t read the comments. No matter how hard moderators try and keep things civil, comments sections on the internet are – and always will be – cesspits. Swarms of people (sometimes called ‘trolls’) are attracted to comments sections, and they have no intention of listening to others or changing their views; they are there to stir up anger. If you do decide to dip your toe in to a comments section, think of it like quicksand: remain calm, balanced, and know when it’s time to leave. Don’t jump in and thrash about angrily or you’ll be sucked in and consumed by the anger (which is what the ‘troll’ wants).

Posting Publicly

Be careful of sharing family photos and personal information. Yes, it’s lovely, but just be mindful of who can potentially see it: if something is public then anyone can see it, even if they don’t use that platform or have been blocked.

It’s easy enough to crop or add an emoji to cover up something in a photo, such as an address or school uniform logo.

Leaving Our Kids Unsupervised

The internet can be an amazing place to nurture a young mind, but it can also be harmful. As they get older it can be particularly challenging to juggle their independence and growth with our responsibility to keep them safe. Every issue we have covered in this article applies tenfold to young people: if you find it hard to stop looking at your phone at night, for them it’s almost impossible.

Fortunately there are some great tools parents can make use of. Microsoft Family Safety is a great place to start: it will let you set screen time limits, limit access to certain games/apps/websites, and more. Many devices have similar family controls, such as PlayStation Family Accounts. Additionally a lot of Smart TVs let you add PIN restrictions to particular apps (e.g. Netflix, YouTube).

Common Sense Media is a great resource for parents wondering whether a particular game/show/movie is suitable for their child.

Here are some resources for young people who want more information about how to stay safe online:

https://www.meiccymru.org/when-to-block/

https://www.meiccymru.org/be-aware-of-your-online-safety-tips-to-keep-safe/