June 15, 2021
A vigilante-type US hacker group that recently gained traction on TikTok has parents wondering what they need to do to safeguard their children on social media from hackers seeking to sniff out “bad behavior.”
After initially appearing on TikTok early in March 2021, this particular cyber-vigilante hacker group amassed more than 1.1 million followers in only a week.
Here’s what you need to know about the trend of cyber-vigilantism, how your children may encounter it on social media, and what best practices you can follow to help your kids stay safe online.
Cyber-vigilante groups describe themselves as “ethical hackers” that expose online users who display behavior they deem contemptible — ranging from racism and pedophilia to trolling, cyberbullying, or engaging in scams.
To expose their targets, cyber-vigilante hackers rely on social media community members to tag them in profiles or comments where someone has said or done something regarded as harmful.
The hacker group then uses doxxing methods to identify the targeted person, post the findings on social media, and report the person to authorities (if applicable), schools, universities, employers, or family members. The group has targeted not only adults but also young school or university-aged people.
Through this vigilante behavior, hackers are taking the law into their own hands, acting outside of authority to not only decide who deserves punishment but to make their targets vulnerable by revealing personally identifying information (PII) on public platforms.
The biggest problem with the cyber-vigilante trend is that we truly don’t know the potentially far-reaching impact of this group's actions.
Exposing a cyberbully on social media isn’t as black and white as vigilantes want to believe; we know that bullying behavior is tied to mental and emotional health. Although their behavior is not an acceptable coping mechanism, these people can be vulnerable. The impact of exposing their identities online may have significant effects on their safety and wellbeing, especially if they are children.
Particularly in cases of domestic abuse, exposing an abuser must be undertaken with caution. It is difficult to ascertain how abusers will react to having their actions exposed, and this often opens
the risk of abusers blaming or punishing their victims.
No matter how offensive someone’s behavior, it’s clear that vigilantism is not the answer; but these actions are committed by a
widespread group — with participation from many members of the social media community — making it more challenging to prevent.
If your child uses TikTok and other social media platforms, it’s important to be involved in their online activity and foster an open dialogue about best practices and safe use of these channels. The reality is that they may observe others engaging in trolling, cyberbullying, or cyber-vigilantism online.
While you cannot prevent your child from seeing this behavior if they spend time on social media, you can teach them how to spot it, avoid engaging in it, and keep their social media interactions positive. Building a relationship of trust and open communication will help your child feel comfortable sharing with you if they see or experience any harmful, uncomfortable, or otherwise negative content online.
Teach your children these best practices for using social media in a safe and thoughtful way.
Remind your child to come from a place of kindness whenever posting, commenting, and participating on social media. Have discussions about how words can be hurtful and why it’s important to think about word choice and tone whenever speaking to someone else, even across a digital channel.
It’s easy to inadvertently take part in cyberbullying from behind a screen, where there’s a sense of false security and you are more removed from the person you may be hurting. Teach your kids to examine their words and photos before posting, and ask themselves: Is this kind? Is it negative? Does my post have the potential to make someone else feel bad?
Above all, remind children that for every screen name and account profile they see online, there is a human behind that account with feelings. This is a great opportunity to help children build skills in reflection and self-awareness, on top of practicing kindness and consideration for others.
Before your child joins a new social media platform, familiarize yourself with the rules and privacy settings of the platform. Make a point to be involved in the account setup process with your child, where you can work together to find and set the privacy settings.
If your child isn’t careful in choosing whom they allow to follow them, and ensuring they have the privacy settings on, it opens the risk of a stranger finding or contacting them.
Because TikTok in particular is growing in popularity right now, and it’s the platform where cyber-vigilantism has taken hold, parents should be especially cautious of this platform. TikTok rules state that users must be 13 years or older, although we recommend users be at least 15 years old with a high level of parental supervision, as the platform attracts a diverse range of content — much of which is not appropriate for young children. For more peace of mind, you can set up Family Pairing on TikTok to stay informed about your child’s activity.
While privacy settings and content filters are valuable tools for parents in the digital age, the ultimate privacy protection method is being conscious about what you share online in the first place.
Speak to your children about the fact that anything they post on social media (even if they have their settings to share with only “friends”) is on the internet for good. That means it’s possible for other people to find it, or for it to be shared publicly, no matter whether it was originally posted as a private message. If your child wouldn’t feel comfortable saying it publicly through a megaphone, they shouldn’t post it on a social media platform.
Review a list together of information that your child isn’t to share online: including your home address or city, telephone number, and the names of family members. Tell them to inform you, or an adult they trust, if someone online asks them to provide information like this. Trust is important here. Remind your children that they won’t be in trouble for alerting you to uncomfortable online behavior; it’s important that they don’t feel punished for sharing openly with you.