Social media is a great way to express opinions, read news, keep in touch with family and friends, and watch the world burn in real time on Twitter. However, it’s important to be cognizant that the information you share on social media could get into the hands of cybercriminals, advertisers, and third-party applications that may not have your best interests in mind. What you share on social media could also affect your standing with prospective employers, clients, and business partners. And of course social media companies themselves have been known to misuse user data in egregious ways, causing users’ personal information to be shared without their consent.
While you may see social media as a fun way to share cat GIFs – and it is! – your online activity has a huge impact on your relationships, livelihood, susceptibility to cybercrime, and pretty much every other aspect of your life offline.
So how can you stay safe on social media? The bad news is that as long as you use social media, there’s always a risk that your personal information will fall into the wrong hands. The good news is that there are some things you can do today to mitigate the risk of this happening.
Shut down accounts you don’t need and don’t open new accounts unless absolutely necessary
The #DeleteFacebook movement is an extreme example of users going to great lengths to protect their data. But you can’t exactly delete Facebook, as it’s your only channel of communication with your Grandma, who routinely expresses disgust at the Kendrick Lamar music videos you share. Oh wait – that’s just me.
In all seriousness though, if you find yourself not using a social network, consider deleting both the account and the application from your devices so there is no chance of any inadvertent data sharing: social media applications could theoretically access all information and activity on your phone.
Try to limit the number of social media networks you use so your data isn’t spread out all over the internet, and if anyone can tell me how to delete my MySpace profile from 2005, I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.
Know your friends
On Twitter it’s hard to follow this advice because the point of the thing is to interact (read: argue) with strangers, but on Facebook make sure you are only friends with people you know and trust, and regularly review your friend list to limit who sees what you’re sharing.
Watch your privacy settings
In the past privacy setting have been difficult to navigate, but companies like Facebook are slowly making it easier to limit who sees your personal information to trusted friends, and Twitter, Instagram, and many other platforms have options that limit who can see your posts and who can follow you.
If your intent is to go viral with your twee observations about coffee and dog names, you’re out of luck on this one, but if you’re not looking to make a name for yourself as a social media influencer, you should absolutely limit who can see your posts, who can follow you, who can directly message you, and who can see your personal information. And if you aspire to be a social media influencer, please know that I am judging you.
Check your privacy settings regularly too, as they have been known to suddenly and mysteriously change.
Familiarize yourself with the concept of “receipts”
All it takes is one enterprising individual with a basic knowledge of how to take a screenshot to ruin your reputation. In common internet parlance, when someone has proof of unbecoming behavior, they have receipts, and you better believe your reckless posts will come back when you least expect them. So ensure that you never post anything that you wouldn’t want everyone on earth to see, because that could very well be what happens. This may sound dramatic, but private citizens are now routinely and unwillingly launched into the public eye for any number of reasons.
Remember that all of your social media activity is permanent and could easily be seen by potential employers, professional contacts, law enforcement, or really anyone else, regardless of your privacy settings.
Share as few identifying details about yourself as possible
Professionals like to use their real names and places of employment to build a reputation for themselves on LinkedIn and other social platforms, but if you can avoid this, you should. Cyber criminals can easily guess your work email address with this information and launch targeted phishing attacks that are all the more credible with a basic description of your job that you likely provide on your profile. As always, ensure your privacy settings are at a level you feel comfortable with, and only connect with people you have a professional relationship with.
Don’t use your social profiles to log into other websites
While it’s convenient to use the “log in with Facebook” option instead of creating a new account, this practice exposes you to potential security risks that become all the more serious when you consider that every time you share your data across platforms, you’re pooling more and more of your data in a single location. If you trust the third party site you’re logging into with Facebook, great, but if you don’t, be mindful that all of your Facebook data and any data you’ve shared on other accounts using Facebook credentials could be accessed if the third party site is hacked. So take the extra minute to create a separate profile.
Don’t fall for clickbait
Yes, you may want to know which Twilight character you most closely resemble by giving all your Facebook profile information to funquiz.com, but please do not do this. You don’t know what else these sites are using your data for, and I can tell you right now that you most resemble Kristin Stewart because she is the only Twilight character I remember but that’s not actually her name in the movies.
Don’t share your location
Of course you want to post those vacation photos, and of course you want to post that gym selfie – what’s the point of even doing these things if you can’t brag about them?! Just be mindful that sharing your exact location, advertising that you’re on vacation, or publicly documenting your daily routine could leave you open to stalking, robbery, or boredom on the part of your followers.
The bottom line
Social media is a great way to connect with like-minded people and keep in touch with friends and family, but this convenience comes at a price. The things you share with the world could compromise your privacy, reputation, and safety if you don’t take appropriate steps to protect yourself.
But it’s not all doom and gloom: just use your best judgment, stay vigilant, and share as many cat GIFs as you possibly can. There can never be too many cat GIFs.