Safe Social Networking
Social networks have become an invaluable part of our life today. They have brought about a revolution in the way we connect and share personal information with other people.
Almost everybody has one or more profiles on the major social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus where they share experiences and upload photos or videos for their friends to see.
Other social networks like LinkedIn and Myspace offer a service that is oriented towards more specific interests. LinkedIn is the world’s largest online network of professionals, whereas Myspace brings together artists and their fans on a single platform.
With so much personal data being uploaded and willingly shared with others, it was a matter a time before these social networking sites became the newest hotspot of cyber-crimes. Identity theft is now the commonest method to commit criminal activities online and as privacy concerns on social networks increase, more people are becoming aware of the risks that social networks carry.
The risks of social networking
Sitting at home before your computer can trick you into a false sense of security, but the dangers on the internet are real and can have devastating consequences that spill over into the physical world.
Some of the risks that users of social networks face include:
- Inappropriate disclosure of private information. You’re never sure who’s watching your profile and the privacy settings on social networking sites can sometimes be confusing or ineffective. Even if you delete information from your profile, there is still the risk that traces of that data remains on the website’s data or that someone else has already copied or downloaded that information before you removed it.
Social networks pose a unique problem for many people because these websites are intensely public spaces that require a corresponding large degree of privacy. People may think that only their friends can view what they are posting whereas anyone using a search engine could potentially look up what you put online.
- Bullying. Social networks are very attractive for younger people, especially children who want to stay in contact with their friends after school. But not everyone out there is your friend. Some people have experienced bullying online, with social network profiles taking the place of the playgrounds for insulting and humiliating victims. Cyber-bullying can lead to tragic consequences as recent news reports on teens who killed themselves after being bullied online have shown.
- Cyber-stalking. It is very easy to track the movements of someone by looking through their social network activity. Many smartphones offer geo-location data with any post you make and certain social networks are based around the very premise of sharing your current location with other people.
- Access to age-inappropriate content. Although many social networks do not let people below a certain age to sign up for a profile it is very easy to circumvent this restriction. Although now many social networks have tools that let users report offensive material, one could still find links to external sites that carry violent or sexually-explicit content.
- Online grooming and child abuse. Sexual predators prowling online can easily set up fake social network profiles that don’t really represent who they are. ‘Groomers’ try to win the confidence of children by pretending they are their peers and set up profiles to make their victims believe they are of their same age and gender. This makes social network a hotbed of child abuse problems and the risks for young users are very high.
- Offensive or inappropriate comments. The degree of anonymity that fake social network profiles encourages some people to post offensive and inappropriate comments safe in the knowledge that nobody can find who they are. Whilst this is not necessarily true, the damage that these comments do is significant and people posting recklessly online often end up facing the music later at their workplace or with the police.
- Phishing emails. People are ready to share a large amount of personal information on social networking sites. This tendency is exploited by phishing scams that send you emails allegedly from social networks you use to encourage you to disclose sensitive information or to visit fraudulent or inappropriate websites.
- Hackers. People hacking into or hijacking your account or page can seriously ruin your online reputation and get you into a serious trouble in the real world. Since many social networking sites let you connect to third party web services and apps it has become incredibly easy for personal information on your social profile to leak into these other websites and into the hands of crooks.
Tips for staying safe
By following some simple and sensible guidelines you can minimise or avoid many of the risks mentioned above and enjoy a safer experience when using social networking sites.
- Keep personal information personal. Think twice before posting identifying information about yourself on your profile or posts. Details such as a phone numbers and home address don’t have to be visible to everyone. Make sure you check the post’s visibility settings before publishing it especially if you’re using a third party service that may have different privacy settings configured. The more personal information you post, the easier it may be for a hacker or an identity thief to use that information to steal your identity, access your data and commit crimes in your name.
- There’s no going back. Avoid posting anything or publish pictures that might later cause you or someone else embarrassment. It is notoriously hard to keep track of where online data goes and something you may have posted in the past may come back to haunt you in the future. Never post comments that are abusive or may cause offence to others. If you wouldn’t do it in the real world than you probably shouldn’t do it online.
- It’s not only you. Be aware of what friends post about you, or reply to your posts, particularly about your personal details and activities. You should be careful before liking or commenting on posts or images of dubious character since this may in turn reflect badly on you. Maintaining a good online reputation is essential since nowadays many recruiters check on prospective candidate’s social network profiles to assess their integrity. Having a strong and positive personal image online plays to your advantage in these situations.
- Learn how to use the site properly. Find out where the privacy settings are and learn how to use them effectively to control who gets to see the things you put online. It’s always a good idea to turn off public visibility on your profile and restrict its contents only to your friends.
- Have strong boundaries. As with any other online service, you should try to pick strong usernames and passwords for your all your social networking sites. A good password manager can be of great help here. Avoid using the same password for all your accounts and change it regularly especially if you notice anything fishy on your profile like strange posts you never authorised.
- Don’t be afraid to say no. If a friend or someone else uploads pictures or content that makes you feel uncomfortable let them know. Likewise, review your own profile and take down any content which might be embarrassing to your friends or compromise your reputability online. If someone is harassing or threatening you, remove them from your friend list, block them and use the report tools to let the site administrators know about any inappropriate behaviour.