Social media sits at the beating heart of 21st century family life. Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are all household names, and families are using one or more of these regularly. These apps are certainly great tools to help us socialize with friends, get the latest news, share personal updates and photos, and follow celebs and influencers. But social media is not without its detractors. Research over the past few years has pointed to possible mental health, anxiety and self-esteem issues associated with excessive use by teens. That’s not to mention potential exposure to fraudsters, cyberbullying and others who may wish our families harm. Additionally, for some parents it’s a daily challenge to pry their kids away from their screens – even at mealtimes.

And while only 32% of teens in the U.S. say they use Twitter, the platform is the favorite for multiple high-profile and influential people and organizations around the world. It’s not the platform typically associated with daily life for teens, but it is one that they are aware of and may turn increasingly towards as they get older. A new Trend Micro report sheds some interesting light on the platform. It warns that although there are benefits to using it for cybersecurity professionals, parents and kids need to be on their guard for scams and fake news on it.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Trend Micro researchers searched through a large volume of Twitter data to identify relationships between entities and uncover key insights. What we found was a “good, bad and ugly” of activity.

Good: On the plus side, the report reveals that security researchers can use social media data quite effectively to hunt for and share intelligence on emerging cyber threats. This will ultimately make us all safer, as it means that companies like Trend Micro will be able to detect and prevent cyber-attacks on their customers more quickly and effectively.

Bad: Perhaps most importantly for parents and teens, we discovered how Twitter is increasingly being used to facilitate scams – particularly ones involving tech support themes. Fake accounts are set up on the site to mimic those of legitimate companies like Trend Micro. When a victim of a tech support scam finds their computer locked with an error message telling them to call a support number, they may try to search online for that number or the named company (Microsoft, Trend Micro etc).

Ugly: However, we also found plenty of evidence to indicate that Twitter is being used prolifically to spread fake news. Usually these campaigns follow the same pattern: automated accounts controlled by computer programs (bots) masquerade as humans to spread a particular message. This kind of service is even offered for hire by cyber-criminals on the dark web.

So-called “gray activities” are arguably even more insidious as they don’t explicitly violate the social network’s terms of service or policies, and so are not blocked. This allows the artificial amplification of certain views or opinions. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the impact on our families, but this kind of activity fundamentally undermines our trust in institutions, our beliefs, and the very decisions we make daily. In such a vacuum, negative and destructive forces can prosper. No-one wants their kids to grow up in a world where we can’t tell truth from fiction.

These fake Twitter accounts make the scam seem legitimate, as they feature the same number as the one on the lock screen. Calling that number will put the victim through to a scammer who’ll try to trick them into handing over their credit card details and/or downloading malware to their machine under the pretense of ‘fixing’ the issue. Often these are multi-channel campaigns involving fake YouTube, Facebook and Telegram accounts to boost the search engine rankings of the original fake tech support website.

This isn’t the only kind of scam you’ll find on Twitter, of course. Although not covered in this report, Twitter can also be used to send links to phishing and malware sites. They may come via posts or direct messages, possibly from someone you know who has had their account hacked.

Takeaways for parents

Although Twitter is getting better at policing this malicious activity, it also makes sense for parents to understand where the threats are in case their family is exposed. With that in mind, here are a few tips to keep your household safer on Twitter:

  • Don’t overshare on social media: there are plenty of nefarious users out there ready to take advantage. Take time out to configure your privacy settings
  • Install antivirus software on your family’s mobile devices to protect them in case anyone clicks on bad links
  • Always be skeptical of what you read online: whether it’s a piece of news that seems outrageous, or a legitimate-looking Twitter account. Look for other sources to verify and double check. We recommend that you confirm the validity of a Twitter account by checking the company’s website directly, rather than through social media. Review this great parent guide on how to help your kids practice good media literacy skills, from the National Association for Media Literacy Education.
  • Consider following your kids on social media to check in once in a while
  • Talk to your kids regularly about what they are seeing and doing on social media. And share what you are doing with them as well.
  • Even better, unplug completely for a while. Try screen-free days, or if that’s too ambitious, dedicate times of the day that are social media-free, like mealtimes or pre-bedtime.

Since Twitter isn’t the primary or only app anyone might be using, these tips are useful across any platform.  Practice good habits on any social network, teach your kids to do the same, and encourage them (and you) to share the same advice with as many people as you know.

Lynette Owens
Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens is the Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 20+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.

Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens