The Family that Tweets Together: The Need for a Family Social Media Policy

July 02, 2018
BBH Wealth Planner Karin Prangley and Relationship Manager Edward Oh provide advice on how to create a family social media policy and share guidelines to improve your digital safety.


Janet Truitte recently became CEO of Truitte Building Materials (TBM), a 45-year-old business founded by her father. Janet's youngest son, Samuel, recently posted photos of his kitchen remodeled on social media, which showed several over-the-top design elements that not only conflicted with TBM'S mission to provide simple and affordable design, but also highlighted a few competing brands. Samuel's decorator picked up the post on Twitter and included a hashtag reference to some of the competing brands. The decorator did not realize that Samuel's mother owned TBM. Shortly thereafter, one of the brands referenced by the decorator retweeted the post, commenting that "even the owners of TBM prefer our products."

During a vacation to St. Barts, James posts a photo on Instagram with a caption about how grateful he is to his grandfather, a well-known philanthropist, for taking his family to such a lovely beach. What no one knew at the time of the Instagram post was that an identity of one of the grandchildren. The identity thief sees the post and takes advantage of an opportunity to complete the crime. When the family returns home, James finds that his mail, including a sensitive bank account statement, has been stolen.

Numerous studies have shown that families of means are more frequently targeted by identity thieves and cybercriminals, as they tend to have greater credit, complicated assets and multiple bank accounts, giving thieves more to gain from their criminal efforts.1 Stalkers, kidnappers, blackmailers and con artists have also been known to target the wealthy online, and social media sites are a deep source of information for those who know what to look for. Creating a social media policy that protects the digital and physical safety of the family is essential for many high-profile wealthy families.

Both families in the earlier examples would benefit from putting in place a collaborative agreement for how each family member’s social media can protect the safety of all family members and promote the family’s legacy and values. This collaborative agreement, often called a family social media policy, should not be an edict from the family elders (except perhaps in a few areas described later in this article, where the family’s safety is at risk), but instead be developed with input from all generations. While an edict of social media “dos and don’ts” created by parents can be appropriate for young children, a collaborative family social media policy of this sort is meant to apply to both adults and children within the family and should not be paternalistic.2 Talking openly about social media in a broader family setting can present a great opportunity to align the family’s values with its online presence and can help all family members make safe, appropriate choices surrounding social media. A collaborative family social media policy can also support parents of young children within the family in their efforts to teach their children how to be good digital citizens.

A family’s online reputation can be a substantial asset. Maintaining a positive online reputation with the help of a social media policy is critical for families with substantial business or philanthropic activities. Families want to ensure that what others learn about them in an online search does not drive away possible commercial or philanthropic partners, but fairly represents who they are and what their family is about.

Some of the risks outlined are frightening for families and may create the temptation to abstain from social medial altogether. While it is perfectly fine for individuals to stay off social media, it is likely unrealistic to ban social media usage for a large and/or multigenerational family. There may be valid professional reasons for using social media, and for the youngest generation, an absolute ban on social media may simply be so stringent that it is ignored. Instead, families should work collaboratively to create a realistic social media policy that promotes the family’s values and protects against security threats.

A family can begin to create its social media policy by asking itself what purpose members hope to serve with their social media accounts. Is the goal of the social media policy to simply protect the family from embarrassment, identity theft, fraud and physical harm? Or is an additional goal to enhance or promote the family’s positive image and to make the family’s legacy more articulate? If there is a business within the family, the family should address how the social media surrounding the business and the social media surrounding the family personally should intersect. Will the family’s personal social media aim to enhance the brand of the business or avoid mentioning the business entirely? The family should also consider the impact that any philanthropic activities have on social media activities.

Top Tips for Digital Safety

Family social media policies should take measures to protect the physical and digital safety of family members.

  • Require that certain information be kept entirely offline, including:

o   Person identifying information that is often asked in connection with credit, such as date of birth, maiden and full legal names, place of birth, address and phone number

o   Specific location identifying where an individual is located at a particular time

o   Anything relating to private investment affairs, including banking relationships

  •  ENABLE privacy settings, which allow users to restrict who may see certain items that are posted so that only know individuals are able to see family member's profiles or personal information.3
  • DISABLE location services (or the equivalent) that use GPS data to track users' locations at a particular moment, and remove any location information (either location data automatically listed by the phone or camera or simply identifying information from a photo itself, such as a restaurant or landmark in the background) from all photos before posting.
  • PROHIBIT vacation photos or others that reveal an identifying location from being posted until family members arrive back home.
  • ENCOURAGE family members not to use social media on hotel, shared or public computers and to avoid using public Wi-Fi network.
  • REQUIRE secure passwords (over 10 characters in length, including a combination of upper-and-lower-case letters, numbers and social characters) for all family social media accounts. Passwords should also be changed quarterly.

Avoiding Reputational Damage

While safety and security concerns are paramount for most families, reputational concerns also top the list of important items to address in a family social media policy. If the family desires to protect itself not only from crime, but also from reputational damage with its social media policy, it should consider encouraging family members to post only positive, honest and accurate content or content that does not elicit envy or controversy. While this might seem like a common-sense rule, it is much harder to remain positive, honest and accurate for a high-profile family who is constantly under a public microscope.

The family social media policy should note that, given the nature of the family, each family member’s conduct may unintentionally endanger the family, cause negative attention to the family or its business in the press or jeopardize an important relationship or philanthropic effort. A simple guideline such as “when in doubt, stop posting, and let’s talk” could work well.

Many family social media policies encourage a quiet demonstration of wealth, not only to prevent the family from theft and fraud, but also to promote a value of modesty and to avoid envy or resentment. If this value is to be encouraged on social media, posting content surrounding tangible items, experiences or property that is only accessible to the wealthy should be limited.

Some families will carefully evaluate whether social media endorsements of businesses or political candidates should be permitted. Certain families believe that when they attach their family name (or even the name of an individual in the family) to a political candidate, business, product or service, they align their name with the endorsee. Of course, the family then has no control over what the candidate, business, product or service does with the endorsement. Some families feel strongly that all political content should be avoided and may be required to do so for regulatory or legal reasons.

A family social media policy is not like a corporate social media policy that threatens termination or punitive action if it is breached. After all, a social media policy is meant to protect the family and encourage its values. Breaches of the family social media policy should be discussed openly so that the family can learn along the way about how the policy and the family’s social media usage should evolve. Especially with young children, there may also be situations better addressed within an individual family unit and where parents alone will be most effective to guide their children’s behavior. Thus, many leave penalties for violation of the spirit of the social media policy to the family unit except for repeated or egregious instances or violations that cause significant financial harm.

Talking about a family social media policy could be as simple as a 30-minute conversation around the dinner table. However, because technology is changing more rapidly than ever, it is an essential conversation to have. An effective conversation about social media is also an important extension of parents’, grandparents’ and other family member’s efforts to instill good values in younger generations. With an understanding and acceptance of the family’s values and a little training on how to use social media effectively, families should achieve social media success.

For guidance on a family social media policy or a copy of a longer sample policy than what is provided in this article, please contact your BBH wealth planner or relationship manager or email us at CW&

The Family that Tweets Together - Excerpts from a Sample Family Social Media Policy

1 “Identity Theft Assessment and Prediction Report 2017.” University of Texas at Austin Center for Identity. March 2017; Vasel, Kathryn Buschman. “Identity Thieves Can’t Ignore Wealthy Targets.” Fox Business’ Money Tree. March 5, 2016.
2 While this article does not address how parents should talk to their adolescent children about proper social media use, several books do. Consider: Devorah Heitner’s “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” or Clayton Cranford’s “Parenting in the Digital World: A Step-by-Step Guide to Internet Safety.”
3 A list of the various privacy settings for popular social media sites can be found on the University of Texas at Austin Center for Identity’s website.

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