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The consequences of oversharing on social networks

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by Staff Writer

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This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

No one can deny that social networking has changed the way we perceive the world and other people. More and more Americans now relate to one another through the computer better than they do face to face. Whether you’re a social misfit or an active politician, somewhere in the world of social networking, there’s a place for you.

On the flip side, social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter have opened the door to a host of problems that never existed before. For example, users have become obsessed with keeping up with the virtual Joneses, marriages are ending as Facebook provides the reason and evidence for divorce, and children are being put at risk by the online behaviors of their parents. Social media sites also collect vast troves of personal information about us, yet we have very little visibility into how they use that data and who has access to it.

We’re rightly excited about this new age of online openness, but many of us don’t realize that our personal information might be hanging out for the entire world to see. This article will discuss the potential consequences of oversharing on social networks and how you can protect your privacy.

Protect your electronic privacy on Facebook and Twitter

If you spend any time at all on the Web, you won’t be able to deny the power of social networking. Facebook now estimates its user base at over 1.8 billion. The FBI uses Facebook to catch criminals, the White House has its own page to connect with the public, and widespread controversy surrounded the alleged impact of the social network on the 2016 US election.

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Twitter also has an impressive user base, with over 300 million active users producing around 500 million tweets per day. Its impacts are different but no less important, allowing politicians and public figures to bypass the media and speak directly to large groups of followers, or broadcasting news about natural disasters or other catastrophes much faster than official warning systems or the media can.

More than anything, however, social media was designed to create connections between its users. It’s ironic, then, that social networking has also become a prime cause of splitting up: personal information posted on Facebook is now routinely cited as a cause of divorce and is said to be responsible for one out of every five online divorce petitions filed.

Lawyers commonly use personal data gathered from social networks to use as evidence in court. Though you might be comfortable with your level of online privacy for daily interactions, you may find that you’re actually revealing too much when relationships turn sour. Lawyers might still be able to access your account and use your personal data against you, especially if you’ve shared information with another person, or in a public setting like Twitter or Pinterest.

Control your personal information when you tweet or update your status

Social networking invites users to step beyond the boundaries of electronic privacy and share the highlights and even mundane details of their daily lives. Whether you’re posting a status update on Facebook about washing your car or tweeting about your visit to the dentist, it would seem that most updates are innocent blasts of personal information.

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The problem arises when an interested party puts the pieces together. Data-mining companies use social networking websites to compile user profiles for advertising companies. Employers routinely check Facebook and Twitter as part of evaluating someone’s character during the hiring process. Home robberies have been blamed on Facebook status updates, as users’ personal data or tweet patterns indicate when they won’t be home.

This infographic by Panda Security shows just how much information social media sites are collecting about us. (click for full size)

The effects of oversharing on your kids

Proud parents are often eager to sharing information about their children on social media, including photos and status updates. However, there are implications for both parents and children.

It’s important for parents to remember that some things should be kept private. If you post a photo of your child’s birthday party or mention your child’s name, age, school, nickname, hobbies, interests or the names of his or her friends, you could be providing a malicious stranger with enough information to gain your child’s trust.

Parents should also consider the fact that they’re essentially creating an online history for their child. Although those baby photos taken in the bathtub might be cute, they could prove to be very embarrassing for a child as he or she grows older. Other children might even use embarrassing photos as a form of cyberbullying.

Children, and unfortunately even some adults, can be quite bold and cruel online, primarily due to the anonymous nature of the Internet. If you simply must share some photos of your child online, choose only those that are appropriate. Avoid any photos that could be embarrassing or those that simply provide too much information. After all, when you post a photo online, you give up all control as to how that photo could be used by those viewing it.

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Practical tips for social media safety

Of course, none of this is to suggest that you should stop using social media entirely. The dangers inherent in social networking stem precisely because of its power and usefulness. But as in all things, with great power comes great responsibility. Here are a few tips to keep you safe as you enjoy Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and all the other social networks:

  • Lock down your accounts: Make sure your account information and posts are only available to the people you want to share with. Even then, avoid filling out lots of personal information in your profiles. Details like your hometown, birthday, and siblings names can easily be used to get around password reset security questions, so that information should not appear on your Facebook profile or anywhere else accessible to others.
  • Consider who might read your posts: Are you posting something you wouldn’t want your parents to see, or your boyfriend or girlfriend? If so, that’s probably not something you should post at all on social media.
  • Don’t post other people’s information: Especially when it comes to your children or other minors, do not post anything that might be remotely considered compromising or embarrassing, and don’t share plans that can let others find them.
  • Don’t post about upcoming or ongoing trips: You never want to post information that tells people when you will be away from home for an extended period. There have been many many instances of stalkers using this information to confront victims, or burglars using it to break into homes. Save your vacation posts for when you get back home.