Drugs, sex, alcohol - and now, social media. The first three are, shall we say, "traditional" routes to risky and sometimes troublemaking behavior for teens. Now, in an age of hyper-narcissistic virtual networks, social media has become a new avenue for people, especially young people, to entangle themselves in unseemly behavior. And it doesn't always seem so wrong at first, simply because of the nature of our technological lifestyles. Posting undesirable photos on Facebook, Tweeting messages that later backfire and generally over-sharing information are just a few ways that digital natives find themselves sometimes under public scrutiny for their online acts. Sofia Coppola's recent release, The Bling Ring, tells the story of five teens who took social media spying to a criminal level and landed the arrest records to prove it.
The Bling Ring - a group of Los Angeles teenagers who infamously robbed a slew of celebrity homes in late 2008 and early 2009 - successfully looted about three million dollars worth of jewellery, cash, clothes and other valuable items from celebs like Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan. The story is making waves not just because of the Hollywood hype, but because their antics hit close to home for anyone living in the digital age; everything they found, they found online. Paris Hilton, one of the mega-famous celebrities whose home was robbed repeatedly, pinpoints social media as a major reason why the Bling Ring was able to pull it all off.
"This could never have happened five or ten years ago," Hilton said in an interview. Back then, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no constant updates of status and location. Hilton was one of the main targets of the robberies, primarily for her fame and fashionista lifestyle; the Bling Ring kids, accurately portrayed as self-obsessed, tech-savvy teenagers in Coppola's film, were infatuated with celebrity lives and seemed to want a taste of celebrity glam for themselves. However, they did not anticipate the effect their robberies would later have on their criminal background checks, or really, anything outside their current moment of fame-seeking. This is one phenomenon of the urgent "now" attitude of social media: look cool now, post a pic of what you're doing now and gain status now. Entrenched in an attitude of instant gratification, the Bling Ringers knew how to take advantage of the "now" and did so for as long as it served them.
The door to social media is open to anyone who wants it. Sites like Facebook and Twitter ingeniously succeed in making larger than life figures seem almost approachable, like anyone can reach celebrity status with enough likes or follows. Just upload a sexy picture to Facebook, gather thousands of followers, get thousands of likes and then voila, suddenly you have an online following that might make you feel like a movie star. Star status seems to be the primary motivation behind the crime spree of the Bling Ring - and ironically, also their downfall. They were finally caught after building themselves up online and posting incriminating evidence to their growing accounts, resulting in permanent arrest records with some pretty glaring crimes.
But for a while, they were able to get away with their little hobby of breaking into rich celebrity's homes, and the virtual landscape had everything to do with it. In fact, they bragged about it. In a day and age where almost any information can be easily accessed online, all it took for the Bling Ring to walk away with their favorite celeb's Rolex watch was a quick GPS search online for an address and a keen monitoring of the celebrities' physical location through event schedules, fan portals and social media updates. When the line between public and private personas is as blurred as it is today, how much do we want the world to see?
Though we may not all be celebrities, most of us do have active social media accounts with varying amounts of information accessible online to anyone who makes a concerted search effort. The Bling Ring may be an extreme example of the exhibitionistic tendencies of teens growing up in a social media-obsessed world, but in the online realm, hackers are a real threat. No one wants to unwittingly find themselves "Bling Ringed," though as we can see, it does happen. Anyone with a virtual identity should be aware of the possible pitfalls of their social media use so as to more fully enjoy the communication it does afford. Here are a few ways to prevent getting Bling Ringed.
- Watch who you friend: If you have a personal page on Facebook, keep it to people you know in real life. If you're someone with a public persona, like a business person, an author or a musician, creating a Facebook Page for your business will allow people to follow you, while also allowing you to only share information appropriate for a fan base, and not, say, your whereabouts on a Wednesday night.
- Beware of suspicious behaviour: Sometimes, we meet people and don't remember who they are, especially when in positions that require a lot of public interaction. If you do friend someone you may or may not know, and they approach you asking for personal details, or they want to strike up some sort of business deal online, you can always use online background check services like Instant Checkmate to get a full picture of the person before deciding whether to bite.
- Turn off geolocation: Apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram offer the ability to tag your location when uploading a status or photo, and it's wise to refrain from publicly posting your current whereabouts online, especially if away from home. Letting the unidentified public know your location just opens a can of worms for unwanted attention.
- Monitor what you share: Not everything people post online is noteworthy (in fact, most of it's not), but often, unremarkable comments online can be just the fodder a hacker or a cyber criminal needs to crack the code to your bank account, location or security network, if you're not careful. Never post sensitive information, like addresses, phone numbers or intricate plans for the weekend, in a public forum. Part of our "social media affliction" is believing that our broadcasts are important to everyone, while also discounting how personal information may be inappropriate for the safety of your account. Yes, you may have a lot of friends, but how many of them are really your friends?
- Delete sensitive posts: Sometimes we forget what crucial information we may have shared before. Though we may move on to the next new rage of social media, our old accounts are always out there somewhere, and they may be sitting there sharing things we don't want shared. All of these old accounts also leave a trace for criminals or hackers to follow, so the less unnecessary information you have readily online, the better. Who needs Xanga anymore, anyway? It may take a little diligence, but deleting old accounts can minimize the risk of leading sneaky criminals straight to you.