Selfie: We take a look at social media's long-term impact on your life

AS WE DOCUMENT AND SHARE OUR LIVES, THERE ARE IMPLICATIONS ON THE FUTURE MANY AREN’T CONSIDERING.

AND ARE WE DOING ENOUGH ABOUT ONLINE BULLYING, OR IS GETTING A HANDLE ON IT IMPOSSIBLE?

WRITTEN BY Justin Boggs,
Clint Davis, Alex Hider, and Eric Pfahler

EDITED BY Mandy Gambrell

DESIGNED BY Jodi George

DEVELOPER SUPPORT BY Josh Singhoff

People create digital autobiographies every day.

Many just call them “selfies.”

Regardless of title, the images chronicle and often define a life’s accomplishments, failures and thoughts in a few clicks for an outsider. The tales have the instantaneous ability to leave a favorable impression or something far worse.

But the stories keep coming and the number of autobiographers are growing. So is the audience. The greatest written autobiography can get lost behind a few pictures, Ohio State University Assistant Professor Jesse Fox said.

“People still will trust pictures more than words any day,” said Fox, who has published studies on the impacts of social media.

People continue to amplify their own happenings through selfies. The average millennial will take 25,700 selfies throughout their lives, according to a 2015 study by Luster Premium White, a Boston-based maker of teeth-whitening products.

People continue to amplify their own happenings through selfies. The average millennial will take 25,700 selfies throughout their lives, according to a 2015 study by Luster Premium White, a Boston-based maker of teeth-whitening products.

Some selfie enthusiasts
will carefully modify and
perfect each image while others
simply snap the photo without a
second thought to how the
image might be perceived.

“We’re all trying to showcase these lifestyles that we aren’t actually necessarily living or we’re only showing this tiny sliver that is so happy and perfect and it’s not actually truthful,” said Laurel Mintz, the CEO of Elevate My Brand.

The information people tell now can be consumed in a moment, and that instance can make a lasting impression. People now can make a decision on whether to pursue a second encounter with an encyclopedia of knowledge.

“If you don’t know me and you just look at my Twitter, you’re going to make an assumption about me off the bat. If all I post is alcohol on my SnapChat, you’re going to think I’m an alcoholic,” said Jay Jackson, a former student at Xavier University.

Jackson is not shy on social media. He has helped produce videos that have gone viral. One of the videos, the “Running Man Challenge Dance: Xavier University,” has more than 468,000 views on Instagram.

But Jackson said he wants to focus on humor and less on controversy when picking the types of scenes he plans to share with the world.

“It was fun,” he said. “The video itself was funny, but people were just coming up telling me how funny it was and they liked it. It’s pretty good.”

Studies range on how much time the average person spends per week on selfies. Some studies such as one done in the United Kingdom say women ages 16 to 25 spent five hours per week on selfies, while others report people spend far less time on selfies.

Extensive time spent on selfies might seem eccentric or narcissistic, but people should put serious thought into the selfies and other social media commentary they post, said author Marsha Collier.

Forbes listed Collier as one of the Top 20 women social influencers. Collier said every individual should consider himself or herself a brand when it comes to social media.

“I think there needs to be a course in high school teaching young people how their social profile will affect them in the future,” Collier said.

Treating an individual as a brand can help negate the chance for a social media faux pas and help keep the autobiography from becoming a grim tale. Social media experts said having a set of rules to dictate the types of content and selfies people take and share could help nix nightmare scenarios before they begin.

“Act as if you are the brand and 100 percent of the time only post, only speak, only be in places with other people that matches your philosophy in life,” said Nika Stewart, co-founder and CEO of GhostTweeting.com. “The more consistent you can be with that, the more trustworthy you are and the more likely you are to succeed at anything you do.”

Trust takes many forms with selfies, which are not always autobiographies. Sometimes selfies are biographies with unwilling subjects, especially in romantic relationships where couples disagree on how much of their relationship should be shown to the public.

“I hear instances of people, ‘Oh, well we were cuddling and I took a picture and I posted it on the internet,’” Fox said. “And it’s like, ‘why?’ The other partner might say it’s really embarrassing or that’s a private moment.”

Social media in general can add unwanted stress to a relationship where even announcing the relationship has started or going “Facebook official” can be dicey.

A Miscommunication
can make for
an uncomfortable
discussion

If one partner considers an evening out a date and the other does not, awkwardness can ensue if a post is made about the outing without both partners being of the same mindset. A friend request has replaced asking for a phone number.

“For romantic relationships, a lot of the research is showing that it’s not necessarily beneficial for a millennial,” Fox said. “We’re seeing a lot of downsides to the way that relationships are kind of manifesting with millennials using social media and the access to social media.”

Research shows social media hurts romantic relationships

Fox said some college students she has interviewed will wait until a semester ends to change a Facebook relationship status to note a breakup. The positive or negative news travels immediately to a much broader audience of what Fox calls “weak-tie relationships” or people who would not have been part of a person’s social circle prior to social media.

But the big judgments often come before the couple have even formed a relationship. Fox’s research shows people speed up the initial steps of a relationship. Whereas people once gradually asked pertinent, personal and perhaps even uncomfortable questions, social media offers a complete guide into some people’s lives without so much as a conversation.

More than words, selfies and other photos on social media give immediate, lasting impressions that are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Fox and two others interviewed 55 students — 24 men and 31 women — from a small Midwestern university to find out more about how social media impacts relationships and the research showed photos to be the primary source of judgment in relationship development.

Social media is a primary source of judgment in
relationship development.

Red flags for both men and women, Fox found, included promiscuous behavior and reckless substance abuse.

Xavier University student Mallory Smarto said she tries not to form opinions based on other people’s social media pictures and posts, but such judgments happen. People want to know, for example, whether a potential mate is already in a relationship.

“I definitely think people do that,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”  

Parents have another relationship they must consider when posting selfies.

Parents often have rules with their children regarding social media. But what about restrictions on what they post about their children?

Parents think other parents post too much about their children.

The digital footprint for many newborns begins before the child has touched the ground.

In a survey of more than 2,000 respondents done by Parents Magazine , 79 percent of those polled said other parents share too much but only 32 percent felt they shared too much.

Parents think other parents post too much about their children.

The digital footprint for many newborns begins before the child has touched the ground.

In a survey of more than 2,000 respondents done by Parents Magazine , 79 percent of those polled said other parents share too much but only 32 percent felt they shared too much.

The Child's
Biography
can be
written
before
the youngster
is even able
to read
or write.

“I think that’s a little unfair to a child,” Stewart said. “Even at just (11) years old, (my daughter) already started in the last year or two, telling me that I need her permission before I post things. And I respect that.”

The combination of photos and comments give children an identity that can leave an impression for others even if the child does not have a social media account.

A survey of 2,000 parents by The Parent Zone showed the average parent will post nearly 1,000 photos of their child online before the child is 5 years old, according to Market Watch.


“I have some friends who are moms who post pictures of their kids who are teenagers who are 14 or 15 and they tell me their kids are not allowed on social media yet,” Stewart said. “I know their kids and I’ve never met them, but I have these specific opinions about them.”

The combination of photos and comments give children an identity that can leave an impression with the outside world.

Eric Pfahler is a national content producer for Scripps Digital, part of The E.W. Scripps Company. Share your thoughts with him at eric.pfahler@scripps.com
Follow his team at @scrippsnational on twitter.

Hugo Cornellier, a 21-year-old college student from Montreal, Quebec, still sounds slightly uncomfortable when the word “selfie” comes up. But he’s one of a generation who’ve turned social media — and selfies — into a source of income.

“When I heard people say that word, I would kind of think it was dumb,” said Cornellier. “But now I don’t judge. I use it to my advantage.”

Cornellier’s claim to internet fame is a YouTube video he first posted in September 2015. Starting when he was 12 years old, he took a selfie nearly every day for eight years, editing all the images into a 2-minute video that essentially shows his physical transformation from a boy to a man. The video — including a high-definition re-edit he posted in 2016— has been viewed more than 4 million times so far.

Those views have turned into a profit.

“There were a bunch of companies who wanted to use it — or short clips of it — in an advertisement or as part of another video. I’ve licensed my video out probably like 10 times,” Cornellier said in May. “I’ve made a lot of money from the advertisements on YouTube.”

He didn’t say exactly how much money, but at this point it’s no secret that YouTube and other social media platforms can lead to serious windfalls for content creators.

In 2015, Forbes reported that the 10 highest earning YouTube stars made a combined $54.5 million in a single year.

“The top star pulled down $12 million, which was a higher salary than any individual actor in ABC’s hit show “Modern Family,” for comparison’s sake.

The top-tier earners on Instagram are able to earn up to $300,000 per post, according to CR Fashion Book. Some models and photographers charge by the like, leading to big profits for people who have millions of followers.

According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, photographer Liz Eswein (1.3 million Instagram followers) typically charges sponsors $1 per like. To put that fee into perspective, her sponsored images regularly attract more than 20,000 likes.

“[Popular social media users] should be looked at like other media platforms, like magazines,” said Nick Pastula, founder of Galore Media, a digital publisher aimed at Millennial women. “They have their own audience and it’s a publishing platform. They have a direct-to-consumer platform to speak to their followers.”


Pastula claims to have been an early adopter of different social media platforms since the glory days of MySpace. In 2014, he co-founded Kitten, a modeling and marketing agency that pairs social media creators with brands. According to its website, Kitten’s roster of models and artists boast a combined 25 million Instagram followers and 4.5 million Snapchat followers.

“[Kitten is] really a community of creators. We help brands and influencers find girls who embody their values,” Pastula said. “A lot of times, we look for a girl that has some momentum and then we nurture them into that star … Our position is that they inspire other girls through their social media channels.”

The ubiquity of smartphones with built-in cameras and the rise of Instagram and other image-sharing platforms have inspired billions of people to try photography. A recent study found that eight times more people were regularly taking photos in 2015 than in 2005. More than 1.2 trillion images are taken annually, according to Amateur Photographer.

 

 

But does that staggering number mean the art of photography is being watered down as a result of its universality?

But does that staggering number mean the art of photography is being watered down as a result of its universality?

“Every person I meet in the street, pretty much, is taking pictures,” said veteran fashion photographer Nigel Barker. He, for one, claims to relish the pervasiveness of digital photography. Barker compares today’s digital camera to one of civilization’s most necessary tools: the pencil.

“Every child is given a pencil and is taught to draw and taught to write. Some will turn into artists, others won’t,” Barker said. “I love the fact that for the first time ever, every child and every person has a chance to play with photography.”

On the topic of selfies, Barker said “it’s nothing new.”

“We’ve been taking pictures of ourselves or painting ourselves for millennia. Even the greatest photographers of all time — like [Richard] Avedon or Irving Penn — regularly photographed themselves in various situations.”

He concedes that “there’s an element of vanity and self obsession” in selfie culture but compared the practice to a massive act of existential therapy on behalf of nearly the entire planet. “We’re all looking at ourselves,” Barker said. “I don’t think we should be afraid of our faces. I don’t think we should be afraid of our facades.”

But even Barker admits that he winces a bit at the mention of the term “selfie.”

“I wouldn’t call myself a fan,” the 44-year-old photographer said. “There are some selfies I cringe over.”

No matter one’s thoughts on the psychology behind selfies, the practice has been used to open people’s eyes to serious issues in recent years. Domestic violence victims across the United States have made news by posting selfies of their battered faces on social media.

A 2013 Serbian public service announcement about domestic violence borrowed the aforementioned selfie-a-day video format that was first popularized by photographer Noah Kalina in 2006.

The PSA presented a year of selfies from a fictionalized woman who was a domestic violence survivor. The photos start innocently enough but her face accumulates bruises as the video continues, ending with her holding a handwritten note that reads, “Help me. I don’t know if I will get to see tomorrow.”

Selfies have become so pervasive that President Barack Obama felt the need to tell a crowd of potential voters, “No selfies,” at a political rally in February 2016. Instagram launched two years into his presidency, making Obama the first commander in chief to routinely be the subject of selfies with eager fans.

Barack Obama is
the first person
to be U.S. president
while selfies are
popular.

 

According to Time, Obama christened political selfies as the modern version of shaking hands with voters — a change he’s apparently not fond of. He even went so far as to remark, “If we had had smartphones when I ran for president, I’m not sure I would’ve run because folks just have their phones; they won’t shake my hand anymore.”

Other international power players that have been the subjects of countless spontaneous selfies in recent years include Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and Pope Francis. Like the old political practices of kissing babies and appearing in parades, smiling for selfies is surely destined to become a campaign cliche of the 21st century.

Of course, posting an Instagram photo that earns thousands of likes isn’t as easy as simply looking beautiful and smiling — although according to experts it should look that effortless. There’s apparently a lot of work that goes into a capturing a flawless selfie.

“You want the photos to look pretty spontaneous — which, a lot of times they are — but there are a couple things that go into making their brands look really cool,” Pastula said. “One is lighting. [The best social media models] are really good at staging and using proper lighting and different filters to keep their pages fresh.”

Pastula also recommends aspiring models find a niche that will let their personal interests shine, such as fitness or body art. “Have some level of consistency. When you look at your overall feed, there should be some kind of story or narrative that you’re trying to tell,” he said.

When asked for his thoughts on what separates a good portrait subject from a bad one, Barker said it’s all about “inner-beauty attributes” like “chemistry and spontaneity.”

“That’s often the reason certain models rise to the top,” Barker continued. “Why did Kate Moss or Christy Turlington become huge when they did? It wasn’t because they were the prettiest girls ever. They are beautiful women, no doubt, but they are in a sea of beautiful women. They rise to the top because of a uniqueness and a personality trait that allows them to blossom in front of the camera.”

As someone who’s spent 30 years in the fashion industry as both a model and photographer, Barker said that while social media has greatly expanded the pool from which top talent can be recruited, he feels it has ultimately made it slightly easier for people to be discovered.

Social Media has led to
discoveries of talent that would
have otherwise never happened.

“Back in the day, when I started, it was extremely difficult then. [Photography] was a rich man’s game,” Barker said. “You had to have money to process a roll of 36 shots and you hoped in that roll that you got something right. You had to become an intern or assistant somewhere for a long time. The internet and social media have broken that down. There are many more places where people can publish their work, be seen and be a part of the business.”

While social media success is certainly a goal for many people, some — like selfie-a-day star Cornellier — seem to stumble into it accidentally.

Cornellier said his hit YouTube video has given him a bit of fame in Quebec, where he claims to have been recognized twice on the streets of Montreal, “which was pretty cool.” But when asked if the viral success of his video had inspired him to pursue a professional career in photography, Cornellier said, “I don’t think I want to do anything with photography. It’s really just a side hobby.”

He’s currently majoring in computer science and said he hopes “to be a programmer and work in an office.” When pressed further about his status as a viral success story, Cornellier said, “It’s not a big deal. It’s just a video.”

Clint Davis is a national content producer for Scripps Digital, part of The E.W. Scripps Company. Share your thoughts with him at clint.davis@scripps.com
Follow his team at @scrippsnational on twitter.

Cyberbullying
Impact:
It Kills People

Victims of cyberbullying confront more than a rude message online; they encounter abhorrent statements that are criminal.

For one young man, this maltreatment was enough to take his own life.

In September 2010, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi was not only confronted by a cyberbully, the man harassing him lived with Clementi. The man living with Clementi videotaped and published online a private sexual encounter Clementi had with another male.

The rendezvous was tweeted and shared among people across the United States. In response, Clementi, then a freshman at Rutgers University, asked the university for a new roommate. But that was not enough to stop the harassment he was receiving from people across the nation. “We know that Tyler was visiting these sites where all these comments were flooding in from people, and obviously (he) was very disturbed by the comments and that all these people had seen this private act,” Sean Kosofsky, the executive director of the Tyler Clementi foundation said.

“Tyler was freshly out of the closet,” Kosofsky added. “This was devastating for him. Not only was he outed all over the internet, his privacy was violated in a big public way.”
Being disturbed by the cyberbullying he received, Clementi ended his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge near New York City on Sept. 22, 2010.

“With the language and tactics being used by trolls and cyber attackers,” Kosofsky said, “grown adults who might otherwise be very confident are sometimes pushed to the brink of suicide or depression or faltering their way of life to get away from the harasser.”

“Grown adults who might otherwise be very confident are sometimes pushed to the brink of suicide or depression ...”

Studies show Clementi was not alone. A 2012 study by Dorothy L. Espelage and Melissa K. Holt titled “ Suicidal Ideation and School Bullying Experiences After Controlling for Depression and Delinquency” shows a correlation between being bullied and suicide attempts.

Espelage and Holt’s study shows that middle school students who reported being bullied were 3.3 times more likely to attempt suicide than those not bullied. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 14, and second-leading cause for people aged 15 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To help those dealing with the effects of bullying and cyberbullying, a foundation, led by Kosofsky, was formed in Clementi’s name. The Tyler Clementi Foundation offers services for organizations and individuals trying to prevent cyberbullying. Among the programs, the foundation offers legal assistance for young people facing cyberbullying or some form of online harassment.

The foundation also conducts trainings for parents in the workplace, educating parents on best practices on combating cyberbullying.

Part of the foundation’s mission, Kosofsky said, is not to reduce suicide. Rather, try to prevent all of the negative effects of cyberbullying with prevention.

“We are focused on bullying and trying to work upstream so the number of the bad effects of bullying like truancy, substance abuse, depression suicide, all of those things that happen later can be diminished with prevention,” Kosofsky said.

What makes cyberbullying different from bullying is not just that messages can be sent electronically, but the bullying can be done anywhere 24 hours a day and harassing messages, images and videos can be distributed to a wide audience.

Studies show that cyberbullied individuals are more likely to commit suicide, skip school, consume illicit drugs and have lower self-esteem.

Twitter is among a number of outlets cyberbullies use to distribute harassing material. According to University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Criminal Justice Professor Justin Patchin, any method of communication that teenagers use could spread troubling material.

“The platforms have changed, the environment has changed, but the behaviors are mostly the same in different environments,” Patchin said. “Early on, it happened in email and chat rooms, and then in MySpace and Facebook and now SnapChat and Instagram and anonymous apps."

“If there is a place teens are hanging out online, there will be cyberbullying there.”

Students Afraid To Speak Out

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2013 study on bullying and cyberbullying in schools, it found that 21 percent of students age 12 to 18 were bullied in the 2012-13 school year.

21

Percent of teen students
are cyberbullied and boys
are less likely to report it.

Research has indicated that traditional face-to-face bullying is still more common than online bullying. According to the same 2013 study, 6.9 percent of students said they had been cyberbullied during the 2012-13 school year. But some of the statistics involving cyberbullying were distressing.

Only 23.3 percent of 12 to 18 year olds cyberbullied notified an adult. Boys were three times less likely to tell an adult than girls.

“Most children will tell you that (their parent) is the last person they are going to tell,” Kosofsky said. “Kids are afraid of having their devices taken away and they are afraid that if their parents intervene, they will be humiliated. Parents and kids are not having these open and honest conversations about bullying."

Patchin agreed that parents could be part of the solution. He also said parents could make it worse, based off how they respond.

“It is up to the parents to demonstrate success,” Patchin said. “If I get bullied and I come to you for help, and you help me resolve that painlessly and quickly, I am going to run to you next time that happens. But if I come to you and you make it worse, you take away my technology, you say something to the school or the parents of the bully that makes the bullying continue but in a more underground way, I am not going to come to you anymore.”

Patchin said parents need to make their children feel comfortable coming to them about bullies to open a line of communication.

“Parents have to be creative, they can’t just call up the parents of the bully and scream at them,” Patchin said. “They should work with the school because if it is happening online, it is probably happening at school as well.”

For most parents of children being cyberbullied, they did not go to school during the age of social media. That has made it challenging for parents and school administrators to identify cyberbullying, according to 11th-grade student Matthew Skeens.

“Kids have grown up with this technology now, and this is the first generation that has done that,” he said. “Parents are left behind. Parents don’t know how to see all of what is going on, and kids do a good job hiding it, because they know more than their parents.”

Getting cyberbullied puts children in a problematic situation.

Children who said they were bullied or cyberbullied were roughly five
times more likely to engage in a fight, four times more likely to fear attack
and
more likely to bring
a weapon to school

than youth not bullied.

Taking Action

Getting cyberbullied puts children in a problematic situation. Children who said they were bullied or cyberbullied were roughly five times more likely to engage in a fight, four times more likely to fear attack and three times more likely to bring a weapon to school than youth not bullied.

Both Patchin and Kosofsky agreed that schools play an integral role in preventing and identifying cyberbullying.

“If they have a type of climate and culture that we hope for, these kind issues will kind of attention without formally policing the internet,” Patchin said. “If you and I are students together at a school and I see something of a concern happening to you online and I know and I trust my counselor to do something about it, I will tell them. If we have this culture of fear and not wanting to be there, then we are not going to have this conversation about it.

“Ultimately, schools need to make it easy to report incidents of bullying and have procedures on how to follow up on those reports.”

At some schools, students and teachers are taking action.

In Chad Siders’ video journalism class, students created a public service announcement showing the effects of cyberbullying. Siders’ students at Southeastern High School located in southern Ohio hope that the PSA is used to launch a broader anti-bullying campaign at the school.

“I wanted to do something that matters here at school and I know that kids here can get bullied and it is not talked about too much and I wanted to raise awareness,” said Skeens, a student in Siders’ video journalism class. “People don’t talk about it because it happens privately. Most people keep it to themselves and they feel alone, there is nobody to talk to about it.”

Skeens and his classmates came up with the slogan, “Hit the block, go and talk” as part of the campaign. But Skeens said he needs the help of school administrators.

“They have to make sure that students know that they can talk to them,” Skeens said. Siders said part of the issue for schools is cyberbullying happens outside of school hours. “It carries over to the school day,”Siders said. “Who polices that? It is a gray area because it might come to a head at school, but it started at 8 p.m. the night before on social media. I feel there has to be a partnership between students, parents and teachers to make something happen.”

Patchin said most states have laws requiring schools to have anti-bullying and anti-cyberbullying procedures, but schools are not given any guidance on how to address bullying.

“The standard of these laws across the state is legislators say schools, you need to deal with bullying and cyberbullying, but they don’t say what they can do, what they should do, what they must do,” Patchin said. “They don’t provide any resources on trainings or interventions. From my perspective, the biggest thing that is missing is resources. Schools would love to do more to prevent bullying and cyberbullying. More counselors, more activity coordinators, more trusted adults in the lives of these kids.”

Where Is The Line?

While many social media users have been involved in discussions that include rude or disparaging comments, experts agree there is a line between online rudeness and online harassment.

While legal standards differ from state to state, most states have laws against a pattern of directing comments or images toward a person that are threatening and hostile.

“You choose to pick this person and you choose to go after them with multiple, multiple posts,” Kosofsky said. “A rude comment or impoliteness or name calling is rude, but when you decide to target them on that, you punish them for who they are, to have influence over their safety or wellbeing, that is bullying. “

Among the examples of cyberbullying are the transmission of explicit images, death threats and comments that could provoke violence.

State by state cyberbullying laws are available here:

cyberbullying.org

Adults Also Targeted

While many of those targeted by cyberbullying are in school, Patchin said he receives more calls from adults than teens that are being cyberbullied.

According to a Pew Research Center survey of adults, 40 percent said they had experienced some form of online harassment. Of the adults surveyed, 8 percent said they had been stalked online and 6 percent said they had been sexually harassed on the internet.

Pew’s research showed that 65 percent of 18 to 29 year olds, and 70 percent of 18 to 24 year olds, have claimed to have experience cyberbullying.

The unnerving part is that more than half of adults who have been cyberbullied said they did personally know their most recent cyberbully.

While most adolescents have a school official that they can report cyberbullying issues to, adults do not have the same opportunity for recourse. This can make things tricky, Patchin said, for adults looking to remedy harassing online behavior.

“It is a very common problem,” Patchin said. “We don’t know the prevalent rates. I think it is more difficult for adults to deal with online harassment. At least for a kid, you have some school-based remedies. If you’re an adult, the only recourse you have as a victim, if the behavior crosses a legal threshold, it becomes a threat or stalking.”

The Cyberbullying Research Center, which Patchin is a part, has developed 10 tips for adult victims of cyberbullying available here:

cyberbullying.org

Justin Boggs is a national content producer for Scripps Digital, part of The E.W. Scripps Company. Share your thoughts with him at justin.boggs@scripps.com
Follow his team at @scrippsnational on twitter.

Social Media Threats
toward schools

On Dec. 15 of last year, officials at the Los Angeles Unified School district awoke to a disturbing phone call. The caller — who appeared to be calling from Germany — claimed that backpacks armed with explosive devices as well as assault rifles and pistols would be used against students that day.

Keeping in mind that southern California had been victimized by a terror attack just two weeks earlier, Steve Zimmer, the LAUSD board president, promptly canceled school at around 7 in the morning.

Parents of hundreds of thousands of students suddenly had to find someone to watch their children. Bus drivers had to be called in from other jobs to take kids home who had showed up early to school. Hundreds of thousands of school lunches that were set to be prepared that day were wasted. Thousands of teachers were paid for the day, and not a single lesson was taught.

Not to mention the moments of panic and a lost sense of security, all for what turned out to be a hoax.

According to Chris Dorn of the Safe Haven Institute, school threats like the one in Los Angeles have been on the rise in recent years, and he says the anonymous nature of social media — especially with sites like YikYak and Kik — is a big reason for it.

“It used to be you would just scribble a note or make a threat to someone in passing. Now, it’s just too easy to get online and make a threat to someone they’ve never met and never plan on following through,” Dorn said.

"It's a very
easy tactic or
methodology
with a very
large impact.
one person
can carry
out unlimited
number of
attacks just
by pressing

Not only has Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts made it easier for terrorists to threaten schools, but it allows for more specific threats. A simple Google search can yield school floor plans as well as names of students and teachers — all of which can heighten a situation, even if the threat is a hoax.

Anonymous threats also create a dangerous cycle, in which a school effectively shows its hand.

“If every time you receive a bomb threat you go to the same evacuation location, then you’re just putting the risk there where someone could attack you at an evacuation site,” Dorn said.

And while it’s always better to be safe than sorry, canceling school because of a social media hoax can be embarrassing for school districts.

“It makes the next threat much more difficult to respond to. Now, LA schools was made to look foolish in the media, now they’re going to think twice about canceling school,” Dorn said.

By Dorn’s estimate, one robocall threat cost Los Angeles county more than $29 million in funding in addition to lost hours by students in the classroom and first responders in the streets.

“It’s the teachers that aren’t teaching. It’s the police officers that aren’t responding to other calls. There may be an emergency call where someone needs assistance for a medical emergency … and there’s a delayed response time because they have this large portion of police responding to this hoax.”

But what are the best steps for schools to take to avoid these costs in the future? According to Dorn, it’s all about fostering a community and encouraging students, teachers and parents to report troubling posts to authorities. Other than that, he advises school officials and law enforcement to be aware of what platforms are out there and what features these sites have to offer.

“When you get a call saying a threat has been made on YikYak, does the school know what that is, or do they have to spend 20 minutes learning what that is?”

Dorn doesn’t fault the LAUSD for canceling school in December 2015, especially considering the heightened terror alert that gripped the city. However, schools in New York received the same threatening message and elected not to cancel school.

"There is only so much you can do,"
he said. "[When it comes to social media]
there's all this risk, and it makes it
easier for the bad guys. but it also
makes it a lot easier for us too.
I'll take the positive slant and say
there is a lot of possibilities out there."

User Agreements/Who Owns What?

About one-fifth of the world has done it. In fact, in order to use Facebook, it’s a requirement. But what is really happening when you check that box that says, “I have read and agree to the terms and conditions”?.”

According to law experts, it could be more than you think.

While what’s covered in user agreements differs from site to site, Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group in London says that social media outlets like to cover their bases with broad wording that is company-friendly.

“They will specify lots and lots of purposes that they may or may not be using at the point,” he said. “They can essentially anticipate as many uses as possible so they don’t find themselves constrained in the future.”

But to what are users implicitly agreeing to? Are users giving all of their content away to tech companies?

According to Jeff Hermes of the Media Law Center, content generated by social media users are protected under copyright. But often times user agreements give companies a license to use posted content.

“For example, a photo you provide …... you might end up giving the site a license to use it in advertising,” Hermes said.

So while users still technically own their statuses, tweets and photos, and they don’t quite have the final say as to how it will be used.

Not only do social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have their ways around using your content, but they’re also tracking your every move — at least when you’re on their sites. The social media companies rely heavily on user analytics to sell advertising opportunities to potential clients, and that means tracking nearly everything does on their site.

“Your conduct on a site, your track record of activity …... the information is usually covered by a privacy policy on a website,” Hermes said.

While this may not be made clear to social media users that have not read user agreements, Killock points out that this is no different than any news site tracking page views on a typical story.

“It’s not that your data is being stolen, it’s just being analyzed. That’s often not very clear to people,” Killock said.

Anyone who has attempted to read the terms of service for any social media site know that the documents contain long, wordy paragraphs full of complicated legalese. But according to Hermes, uninformed users will always be on the hook for the terms spelled out in the agreements, no matter how complicated.

“Courts are going to be reluctant to accept the argument that the terms of service were too hard to read,” he said. “Yes it’s hard, no there’s no perfect solution that I’ve seen, and courts tend to take contracts as written.”

It’s also important to note that in an age where cyber security is becoming more and more important (even Mark Zuckerberg has had problems with his social media accounts), that it varies case-by-case and state-by-state as to who is responsible — and for how much — in the event of a breach.

“It can be difficult in these cases to actually put a dollar figure on the information that is lost in the hack,” Hermes said. “Similarly, cases where a site is alleged to have shared information illegally, figuring what the damages are is very very tricky.”

So, what can social media users do to better protect their information online? According to Hermes, it all comes down to being aware of who can see your information — and it’s often a wider audience than you might think.

“You can be responsible for
what you say … and you have
to assume that people are
watching beyond the people
you’re writing to,” he said.

Alex Hider is a national content producer for Scripps Digital, part of The E.W. Scripps Company. Share your thoughts with him at alex.hider@scripps.com
Follow his team at @scrippsnational on twitter.