Social Media Safety

By Nick Lewis

The growing influence of social networks such as Facebook and the advent of Chatroulette mean that social media safety for children is a hot topic at the moment. Chatroulette in particular has been singled out as being inadequate when it comes to parental controls and child safety, its only age verification feature being a tickbox for the user to state they are over 16.

With escalating interest in social media amongst parents and the media, any web design agency should be acutely aware of these issues if they are involved in building a website that could be dangerous to children if handled incorrectly.

Clearly, if adult content is a possibility, a robust age verification system is a must to prevent children viewing inappropriate content or engaging with questionable individuals. One method of doing this is to prompt users to enter credit card details, but this produces many problems: users may not trust the site enough to do this for age verification purposes, it prevents all under 18s (whereas you may wish to prevent under 13s for example) and not all over 18s have credit cards. If any web agency decides to go down this road, it is worth remembering that personal details (particularly financial details) should always be protected by an SSL connection to prevent hacking.

Asking users for their date of birth is another popular method of verifying age, however, again, this can be easily falsified and is little better than the Chatroulette tickbox. As this is becoming an important topic in web design, there is a growing market in age verification systems, such as the BBFC approved NetIDme, that are available to web design agencies to use in building websites that require it; and it’s definitely something worth looking into.

Another important feature for social media web design is to have report buttons where users and/or parents can report inappropriate images, posts or other material as well as potentially threatening users 24/7. It is absolutely essential to have 24 hour moderation so these reports can be acted on swiftly, otherwise you could end up with a build-up of inappropriate material when you’re not looking, and the last thing your site needs is a blind spot in which it can be abused.

Web designers may also want to include keyword filters to trigger manual authorisation for written content to help stop inappropriate content from going up in the first place. Of course, this will not be 100% effective but it can go some way to prevent abuse of the site. You could for example, block any posts that feature swear words or the names of recreational drugs. It is important not to automatically block any and all content containing these words, as they may be used innocently. For example ‘coke’ can denote ‘cocaine’ or be shorthand for ‘Coca-Cola’.

On a similar level of moderation, it must be made clear in the terms and conditions of the site that any users found to be using the site inappropriately may have their account suspended and/or terminated upon review, with inappropriate use clearly spelt out. If the site is to be marketed for use by children, this is a strong message that can be included in any marketing or digital marketing materials, as parents particularly will be concerned about the safety of their children using the site.

It may be argued that the onus of responsibility for a child’s safety on the internet lies with parental control rather than web agencies, and certainly that is true to a certain extent. Parents should be aware of what their children are doing on the internet and responsible parents should be using some sort of parental control software to help regulate their use and time on the internet. However, aside from the societal benefits of building in features to protect children on any site that may pose a risk to children, web design agencies would do well to remember that in digital marketing, reputation is everything, and a safe site for children to use is marketing gold.

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