In the age of socializing online, sharing all of your information on the Internet can feel like a no-brainer at times. But, as tempting as it may be to let your entire online network know everything you do and everywhere you go, there are serious risks that you need to keep in mind. Once you put something online, there’s no telling who will see it.
For many people, privacy is just a comfortable thing to have. When you say something on Twitter, you want your friends to read it—not your curious ex-boyfriend or your mother-in-law.
However, sometimes the stakes are higher. If you have ever been the victim of stalking, exposing too much personal information on your social networks could give your stalker a way to continue following your every move. Your information could also be used to harass you if it fell into the wrong hands.
But just because there are risks, this doesn’t mean that you have to shut down your online presence, deactivate your Facebook, and erase your Twitter account in order to stay private. It just means you need to be smart and safe about the way you use your social networks.
The following are some suggestions for how you can maintain your privacy while staying active on social networking sites.
Understand Your Privacy Settings
The first and most important way to maintain privacy online is to use the privacy options that social networks provide. Many Facebook users have lax privacy for their profiles simply because they don’t bother to adjust their settings.
If you use Facebook, make sure to regularly check your account settings, review all of the privacy options, and limit your sharing so that only your desired audience gets to see your profile.
You can even adjust the privacy of each individual Facebook post, allowing only specific friends to read a particular status or view a photo album. Utilize these features—they exist for a reason.
On social networks like Instagram and Twitter that have “followers” rather than “friends,” you have the option to make your account protected from non-followers. If your account is protected, users have to send a request to follow your posts, and they won’t see anything until you give them permission. If you don’t have a protected account, your posts are public for anyone to view.
Blogging services like Tumblr and WordPress also have features that let you keep your blogs private. These sites allow you to protect your blogs with a password. This way, you can hand select who gets to view your posts by only giving the password to people you trust.
Never Share Your Location
The easiest way for a stalker, an ex, or anyone else to abuse your information is by using it to follow you. Because of this, you should never share your exact address on the Internet. If you create a Facebook event for a birthday party or a holiday BBQ, ask your guests to contact you personally for the address instead of adding it to the page.
Your address isn’t the only thing that gives away your location. After all, no one spends all of his or her time at home. But most social networks these days allow you to add geo-tags to your posts, letting you share where you are whenever you post something.
On Instagram, you can tag the exact location of your photos on a map for all of your followers to see. Twitter has a similar feature you can use to add locations to your tweets.
On Facebook, you can “check-in” to restaurants, cafés, and other places. A geographic check-in on Facebook can be a post on its own, or you can check in at a certain location when you share a photo or a status.
Taking it even further are networks like Foursquare, a mobile application that exists entirely for the purpose of checking in wherever you go. Whenever you check in somewhere, Foursquare gives you points, which accumulate to earn you “badges,” and even sends a notification to your nearby Foursquare friends to let them know that you’re close.
Here’s the simple truth about apps like Foursquare. If you want any semblance of privacy when it comes to your location, just don’t use it. There’s no reason for you to create a page where the sole purpose is to provide a live play-by-play of your every move.
An easy way to stay engaged in your social networks without putting yourself at risk is to safeguard your location. Never attach a GPS location to your Instagram photos, Facebook statuses, or tweets—that way, you can still post on these networks without giving too much away.
You should also pay attention not to share photos where it’s easy to identify a specific location, like the storefront at your regular coffee shop or the name sign at your favorite park. Even without a GPS tag, someone could easily track you down using this information.
Keep Your Networks Close
Another privacy mistake that is all too common is to have “friends” that you aren’t actually friends with—or even acquaintances, in some cases. It’s never a good idea to give strangers access to your private information by accepting their friend requests or follow requests when you don’t really know them.
If you want to keep your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts truly private—and ensure that you can share things with your actual community without being vulnerable—then keep your social networks limited to people who are actually a part of your social network.
Don’t accept someone’s friend request because they happen to know your college roommate. Don’t let a random person follow you on Instagram or Twitter simply because you both have similar interests.
When you let someone you don’t fully know into your social network, you open yourself up to certain risks. Even if a stranger seems friendly and innocuous, you have no way to guarantee his or her identity.
When you use social networks, it’s inevitable that your information will become less private. That’s the very nature of these networks—when you share something, it becomes a part of the social experience, which is documented and catalogued online.
But you can still be intelligent and mindful. Take your privacy precautions seriously. Don’t share any information that would allow someone to track you down. Keep your online community limited to the people who are actually in your life and be smart about what you share and who can see it. Stay connected, but stay protected.