Love Letters from Wildwood: Online Safety
By Kate Napolitano, Social Relationships & Sexuality Educator at Wildwood

Welcome to another edition of Love Letters from Wildwood. In Love Letters, we talk about all things love, sex, and relationships – often with a focus on current events and/or the world of disability.

Today, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on online safety, and offer some tips. Online Safety is a BIG topic. It will be covered in more depth at an online workshop tomorrow, September 30; registration information has been included at the bottom of this article for those interested!

I think it might be an understatement to say that, here in 2020, our relationship to the internet has continually evolved all year. Some people are using the internet who have never used it much before; some are using it more than ever, for almost all their work and play; and some of us are in between, still figuring out what internet use may be temporary, and what may be permanent change.

To me, the Internet feels (virtually!) like New York City: it has some marvelous, fun, unique, bucket-list-able experiences not to miss! But it’s also possible to get into danger of some kind in about ten seconds, so to speak, if you do not pay attention to what you’re doing.

To help navigate the Internet more safely, there are two big things that you may be able to put into in place (if you haven’t already):

  1. Believe that your safety comes first. Be willing to believe that your safety comes first –at all times, regarding anyone you meet online, or anything you do online. Then, act like it – watch your back like you would on a busy city street. 

What does this mean? It doesn’t matter how nice online strangers seem, or how old they tell you they are, or who they say they are. There are a lot of scammers, “trolls,” and immature people online who are willing to hurt others, including you. Do not believe everything people tell you at first glance. Do not give out your personal information. If they are really a nice person, be patient and let them earn your trust over time.

It is important to be careful of what photos you post of yourself. Sometimes bullies like to take peoples’ photos and re-post them elsewhere online in order to make fun of them. It is very risky to give a newer person you’ve met (no matter how excited and happy they make you feel) nude photos of yourself. It is also very risky to send money, or give out your financial information, regardless of how badly in distress the stranger may seem, or whether they seem to have a way to pay you back. 

In fact, I’d like to give you bonus tip here as well: Whenever you go to do anything online (texting/messaging, TikTok, gaming, Facebook, anything virtual) please take a moment first to think: What am I feeling right now? Lonely? Bored? Angry? Tired? Eager for sexual stimulation? Getting in touch with your feelings can give you a sense of how vulnerable you are at the moment, and what to be careful of. 

You see, when we go on the internet, we can often be in a vulnerable state. Vulnerability isn’t bad, but it’s important to be aware of. A lot of us look to the internet for things like friendship, sex, connection, fantasy, escape, fun and entertainment. All of these, in their own way, are vulnerable states: we are “opening” ourselves to what we think the internet may have to offer. We are trusting, believing we can expect to find what we’re looking for. And that’s fine…Often we do find what we’re looking for, and have a great time. But generally speaking, that means our guard is just a little bit down when we go on the Internet. 

Vulnerability has the potential to create issues. If you’re feeling lonely for example, you might be more likely to get involved with people you don’t know well, or to get re-involved with an ex. If you’re feeling angry, you might be more likely to make a post you will later regret (or could later be held against you). If you’re bored, you might just start aimlessly scrolling through content. While not immediately unsafe, just pointlessly wandering around an app’s content could lead to accidentally finding upsetting or disturbing material, such as the recent tragedy involving TikTok and a live-streamed suicide. 

Check in with yourself emotionally before you text, before you open Facebook or TikTok, or before you turn on the Xbox. Think: What’s the real goal here? Just to have fun? To meet some new prospective people to date? Be aware of your goal and stick to it, keeping your safety in mind. Even if it is just to scroll around because you’re bored, think about what content you’re into (Humor? Science? Nature? Porn?) Consider checking out material of channels you already know, or searching carefully for content/creators others have rated or liked well before exposing yourself their stuff. On YouTube, for example, you can quickly see if a video has a lot of “likes,” and if the comments are generally positive.

All of this brings me to tip #2: 

  1. Do you know what you’re doing? From a practical perspective, do you know how to navigate the software you’re using? For example, if you choose to look for pornography, do you really know how to find it safely and legally? Do you know how to turn on your privacy settings and protect your personal information?

I have worked with people who have found themselves in a little trouble with the internet. Often, their “strategy” was to sort of click on things, trust any websites, open emails and attachments from people they don’t know – perhaps they also trusted strangers too willingly at a time they felt eager and lonely. 

Sure, you can do that, but these little choices can have annoying, if not concerning consequences, as we’ve been discussing. There are hobbies and activities where you can play around and figure out on your own (piano, paper airplanes, watercolor painting…); with the internet, I recommend you get some help in order to get started.

The good news is that you can learn how to use the internet safely. Wildwood, for example, offers computer and internet classes to the individuals and families that the agency serves. Local libraries offer classes as well. Apple even offers classes to people who use their products. Going on YouTube or Google and searching for “how to use the internet safely,” will lead you to videos that can help. And, these days, see if there is someone you trust who is already internet savvy who might agree to help you, too.

I strongly advocate getting the support, because the internet can be a fabulous tool! Currently, I follow about 80 people on TikTok. For me, it’s a carefully curated selection of creators whose funny and uplifting material has given me much comfort during this crazy year. Back in the day, I used the internet for dating, and I met a lot of very interesting people. Minecraft and Animal Crossing are other fun ways to spend a little time away from reality just being creative. And I stand proud to know that, apparently, if I were a Fall drink, I would be a Pumpkin Spice Latte – thanks to the profoundly satisfying, silly infinity that is Buzzfeed Quizzes. 

But the security I feel in these activities makes me thankful for the school teachers, friends, family and coworkers along the way who taught me Internet street-smarts. Be mindful of what you’re doing and why, have a plan before you go in, make sure you know the technical skills, watch your back, and seek support: with those tips, I believe you too, can have your own super-duper fun, safe time. 

If you’re interested in learning more about online safety, come to Wildwood’s Online Safety Workshop (held virtually) tomorrow, September 30, at 10:00 a.m. The workshop will be held via Google Meet. You can sign up by: Contacting Lynn LaFave at 518.640.3370 or fss@wildwoodprograms.org. We’re also going to be starting an ongoing weekly Online Safety & Social Skills group for people with disabilities and their families. If you’re interested in having ongoing support, please feel free to email me at knapolitano@wildwoodprograms.org.