Coronavirus: Staying safe and well online

Categories: School of Health and Society

Our relationship and interaction with the outside world has dramatically changed in recent weeks as we adjust to life in lockdown.

Technology and social media are helping people embrace virtual communication, access vital information, find support and continue learning. However, as we spend more time online, we can also be exposed to cybercrime, trolls, scammers and fake news. 

The University of Salford’s experts in social media and digital health Dr Cristina Vasilica, Dr Alex Fenton, and Kyle Charnley offer their advice on how to stay safe online and protect your digital wellbeing.

Understanding fake news – five questions to ask

The global fake news phenomenon has exploded in recent times, and continues to grow during Covid-19. Fake news is deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional or social media. For example, myths such as: ‘5G causes coronavirus’, ‘Drinking hot water and lemon will kill the virus’ and ‘The virus cannot be spread in hot and humid climates’ have appeared online in recent weeks. 

Platforms are changing their guidelines to help address this (for example, WhatsApp has announced it will restrict the number of forwarded messages people can send) but the phenomenon is hard to police.

This means we have to be more critical of news and information we see online. Think about:

  • Who is the author/publisher/source of the information? 
  • Are they trustworthy and qualified to write about the subject? 
  • What is the evidence to support their claims? 
  • Does the language or tone seem balanced and unbiased? 
  • What is the purpose of the article? (Is it to provide facts, entertain, persuade?) 

Cybercrime – top five tips

Cybercrime (computer crime) has also significantly increased during the pandemic. We have sadly seen scammers aiming to trick users into sharing sensitive information or making payments, for instance through Covid-19 tax refund offers, fake ‘Donate to help’ charity appeals, and hand sanitiser and other counterfeit products offered for sale.

  • Check before you click – Always sense check any information you receive online or via email. Does the sender’s email address look genuine? Is the message something you expected to receive, or has it come out of the blue? What actions it is asking you to take? Avoid clicking on links or downloading files, unless you’re sure that the message is genuine.  
  • Make sure web addresses are genuine and secure – Shortened URLs (links) are often used by cybercriminals. Check where any links are taking you and make sure it is an official website. Genuine websites that store personal data should use encryption (making data more secure and less likely to be intercepted). You can check this by making sure the web address starts with ‘https’ and has a security lock icon. 
  • Beware of demands for money – Banks, HMRC, governmental institutions or other organisations will not send emails to demand payments, so be extremely cautious if you get an email asking for money.
  • Keep up to date – Make sure you apply software updates regularly and install antivirus software. These will improve the security of your devices.  
  • There’s an app for everything – As we all look for new ways to communicate and occupy our time, you may be downloading or using new apps on your devices. Before installing an app, do a quick search for reviews and comments. Check the settings on any apps you use to make sure privacy controls are in place.

Protect your wellbeing online – top five tips

  • Go on a digital diet – Think of your digital wellbeing like a diet, too much of one thing isn’t always good for you. Structure your time around tasks you must do and tasks you want to do. 
  • Limit your notifications – Notifications of new emails/text messages/sales/social media updates can be distracting and make it difficult to focus. Consider limiting your notifications or completely turn them off for a while. 
  • No news is often good news – It's good to stay up to date, however news reports can sensationalise stories and cause stress, panic or anxiety.  Try to limit the time you spend reading/watching the news and only access trusted sites. 
  • Don’t feed the trolls – If you’re using social media to access information and support, avoid getting involved in arguments. Be supportive of others, protect your own wellbeing and that of the community. On public social media platforms, you will find people who set out to be deliberately controversial (known as trolls). Use the report/block/mute features to silence them instead of responding. 
  • Be mindful of apps and tools – iPhone and Android devices let you view your screen time and which applications you are using most often (iOS Screen Time & Android Digital Wellbeing). This can help you identify apps that distract you. There also lots of apps, such as ‘Headspace’, which can provide guided meditation and mindfulness.
    Video hosting sites such as YouTube hold lots of digital content free of charge to help with guided relaxation and mindfulness. 
    Finally, there is a great resource called Getselfhelp.co.uk with lots of easy to read guides to look after your health and wellbeing.

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