On Her Own

Viral safety tip!

There’s a safety tip that’s gone viral in the last few days. You might have seen it, the suggestion that if you get lost and have low to no cell phone signal or battery, you should change your outgoing voicemail message to the time and date, your location, and the troublesome situation you’re in. The idea is that after your battery dies or if you lose signal entirely, someone calling you will be able to find out what’s going on. On the surface, it sounds great. I want to talk about two things today, though: why it’s not a good idea after all and more importantly, some ways you can figure out when other viral safety tips are also not good ideas.

Let’s start with this: how many of you actually have friends who, on a regular basis, leave voicemail for you instead of hanging up and texting if you don’t pick up? For that matter, how many of you leave voicemail for personal calls? Be honest, because we all know that’s pretty rare. It’s so rare that you probably don’t even know how to change your outgoing voicemail message, even if you had sufficient signal to reach your network. If you do have signal, then a better use of your limited battery life would be to skip straight to calling for help via 911. If the level of signal you have isn’t enough to make a phone call, texting is far more reliable (and battery-saving). Some areas allow texting to 911 or, in a true emergency, your friends will probably forgive you for a massive group text. A far better plan is to let people know your plans before you take off, especially into an area where you know reception isn’t great, and to charge up your cell phone ahead of time and bring a spare external battery so that you can recharge at least once.

I’m betting that as you read this last paragraph, all of those conclusions were completely obvious to you and I didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. In fact, you might even feel a little silly about having been gullible enough to believe, like, or share that tip. That’s okay. It sounded plausible up front, it gave a way of empowering someone who might be lost or stranded, and who doesn’t want to help others be safer? It’s awesome that so many people passed along something they thought would give someone the ability to participate in their own rescue if things went south.

The trick is making sure that the advice you share next time around is accurate and won’t lead to false confidence or greater trouble for the friends you’re trying to give good information to. Fortunately, you don’t have to stop sharing, just do a few things first:

Read for language that may indicate that the tip hasn’t been adequately vetted, and is just a rapidly circulating “this sounds good” sort of idea. If it’s not coming from a source you know to be reliable, that can be a sign that you should be skeptical, at least at first. If it’s claiming that any kind of solution “just” requires you to do something relatively simple that you’ve never heard before, that, too, can be a sign since it’s so uncommon for a single easy solution to universally solve complicated problems and it’s unlikely for one to be suddenly discovered. If it’s dramatic or sensationalist with a sense of urgency, it can pay to be suspicious up front instead of allowing yourself to be dragged along with the excitement.

That initial pause gives you a moment to think through the idea before you hit the share button. By building in a little pause instead of reacting blindly to key words like “safety tip,” you can consider how it might or might not work if you were the one who needed it or if you were the one who was trying to save a friend who used it. Maybe favorite or bookmark the post, and come back to it a little later to decide whether it’s really plausible once you’ve let it roll around in your head for a bit. Experience and familiarity with safety-related concepts can inform your thought process here, but so can plain old common sense.

Finally, run the tip through a search engine. You may find that it’s already been debunked. You may also find that it’s a great strategy, and get some details about how to make it even more effective. Either way, you win either by learning not to pass it along or by being able to add some extra information. If the tip hasn’t been addressed by a reliable source yet, go find one and ask. My inbox is always open, but there are lots of other experts you can consult too, who have the background knowledge to assess the various self defense ideas that float around social media. You can also wait a day or three and search again. It’s true you might not ride the early wave of sharing the tip if you do, but it’s also true you’re more likely to not have to retract your post that way.

Sharing safety and self defense knowledge is a wonderful thing. It’s part of showing your care for your community, and thumbing your nose at the people and circumstances who would do them harm. That’s why it’s so important to get it right when you do, so that you aren’t inadvertently spreading misinformation that can cause your loved ones to overconfidently take unreasonable risks, or to waste precious time and energy with ineffective strategies to save themselves from the bad things in life. Don’t share for the sake of sharing. Share what will actually work, even if it’s not simple or pithy.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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