29/09/2014 10:47 BST | Updated 29/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Little Johnny and Facebook : Wising Up to Online Protection Hazards


A two-year online campaign to raise awareness among children of the importance of web privacy and data protection, the Impact of Relationship, or I.O.R., project financed by the EU's Daphne III Programme, is currently in its concluding months. After having created profile pages in each of their respective national languages on 10 of the most popular social network sites, professionals from 27 collaborating organizations and as many member states have been in regular 'dialogue' with this target population. Frequently identified as being vulnerable to not always fully comprehending the dangers of online negligence in this area -especially in view of any unwelcome latent outcome- young users have thus been invited to exercise vigilance on the net in regard to clicking privacy authorizations, posting intimate videos and images or providing personal data.

Through activating their project profile pages on ASK, G+, Netlog and Hi5 among others, the consortium partners established contact over the months with users aged between 10 and 17, so engaging in sustained interaction by way of page 'animation' via posts treating of campaign-related issues. As may perhaps be expected in any communication with teenage interlocutors, at times page animators received flippant responses, though comments were more often than not obliging and pertinent, such that any 'mutinous' input was nonetheless usefully 'telling'. One sobering observation by the I.O.R. professionals in touch with the youth in question was that upon commencement of the project very few among these children expressed concern for their online privacy or had critically examined the need for discretion when using the social networks. Consequently, they paid little attention to such phenomena as cyberbullying, even if most appeared to entertain some fear of being publicly 'humiliated' on the net.

Essential to I.O.R. experts over the course of activities was to underscore that their objective was never to bad-mouth the social networks in general terms and indeed throughout the life of the project the positive attributes of a few were even lauded and on occasion enthusiastically celebrated. However, discernable merits notwithstanding, some menacing elements too -indubitably harmful to their underage users- literally hijacked their attention. Among a string of perturbing developments, I.O.R. professionals noted very sexually explicit images on the Hi5 and Netlog profiles of children, or people at least claiming to be children. Here I am reminded of a reflection by Fortunato Di Noto that "paedophiles love the social networks", which perhaps highlights how much of a priority emotional literacy has become now for both minors and adults, especially in prompting us to educate ourselves on the dangers of irresponsible exhibitionism online or against being 'exposed', whether knowingly or not, as objects of erotic fantasy.

Periodic posts from I.O.R. experts also dealt with questions surrounding the digital footprint and possible traceability 'to cyber posterity' of online appearances upon YouTube or owing to Facebook communications. Various messages conveyed by animators took the form of 'vignettes' on how behaviour which may appear cool or risqué to us in an inattentive moment of impropriety can, unfairly or no, later work to our disadvantage in situations like, say, evaluation one day of our performance at school or some spot appraisal at work on the standard of our professionalism. What comes to mind here is the online drinking game 'NekNominate' which, via a tag, challenges contestants to wolf down perilous volumes of alcohol at one sitting as videos and video chats offer live reportage on the progressive stages of their drinking. This oft-impassioned interaction appears upon different social networks, which duly play their part in 'wowing the buzz' around contestants who, thus egged on in full view of all and sundry, succeed in like manner in killing two birds with one stone for having hit upon the quickest way to court the chances of their tomfoolery becoming viral in a hurry. Here we might likewise consider that even a selfie can remain quite innocuous as long as it is not shot in a context subsequently judged to be disparaging or in which comportment or attire gives rise to real or imagined 'scandal' among classmates, peers or relatives.

But this is not always 'the end of the story', as gossipmongers may sometimes be just a stone's throw away. The Italian partner, for instance, noted numerous hits to the country's Spetteguless site (trans. 'spotted'), the purpose of which is to anonymously remark upon people's private lives. Regularly this includes the names and surnames of the 'protagonists' who are also defamed online. The network, traceable by the word 'Spetteguless' followed by the name of the city, activates pages nationwide. Though some of these are later taken offline following reports to the police and media or have in consequence simply not been updated, others continue to be active and are, as such, daily capable of doing fresh harm - of particular concern to us here as users victimized in this way are often minors.

In sum, over an intensive two-year period of online interaction with a sizably representative group of its target population, the I.O.R. project team prepares now to conclude the animation of its profile pages with further confirmation of its very earliest suspicions surrounding use of the social networks by some of Europe's youngest online account holders. Accompanying observations by the consortium thus signal the persistence of sufficiently misinformed application of their features to warrant greater effort and further investment in educating youth towards responsibly exercising their judgement and restraint in matters pertaining to the protection of their personal privacy.

For more on the I.O.R. project, visit