How to stay safe on social media
A 6 minute read • Simon Q
Part of our life hacks series. Nobody can doubt the way that social media has changed our lives compared with just ten or so years ago. We use social media to share our experiences with friends and family, do business, show support for our favourite causes, take part in political debate and much more.
What can go wrong?
Most people never encounter a problem when using social media. Then again, we have all seen content that riles us, or that we think is false and misleading and that we feel an urge to correct or challenge. And as parents, we want to do the best we can protect our children online.
It’s worth being aware of the risks of sharing your life online and it’s especially important to talk to your kids about trolling, sexting and staying safe online.
Here’s a list of a few things to be aware of:
- Trolling, bullying and cyber-stalking
- Hacking of your account or device
- Identity theft
- Viruses and spyware
- Threats to your personal safety and security
Why do we have a problem?
Any online place where we feel comfortable sharing details about our lives can potentially open us to criminal activity. This could be somebody ‘buying’ goods from you on Gumtree, collecting the item and promising to pay you later but not living up to that promise. At the other extreme, it can be full-scale hacking, identity theft or blackmail facilitated by patient and thorough analysis of all the data that a crook can find about you.
Aside from criminal activity, there seems to be something about social media that gives some people a bravado that they don’t necessarily have in their offline life. It’s all too easy to be critical, cajole and insult from the comfort of your home. Trolling has become the modern-day manifestation of libel and slander, and importantly, the law sees no difference.
“Trolling has become the modern-day manifestation of libel and slander”
Some people feel that social media companies need to do more to curtail the worst excesses of some of their users. It’s easy to agree with the view that censorship of unsavoury content and banning people who propagate abuse and lies are a way to manage the problem. And this is how some companies such as Facebook and Twitter have been dealing with the problem of online abuse.
But this needs to be balanced with the right to free speech. This doesn’t mean that abuse and illegal content shouldn’t be tackled, but does mean that we need to accept that some people have opposite points of view to ourselves.
Ten tips to keep you safe
Social media companies have taken privacy and security more seriously in recent years and most offer tools and advice to keep you safe. Here’s my list of top tips:
- Use long and unique passwords: longer passwords are less easily cracked than short ones. Use a different password for each account so that if you are hacked the hacker cannot access other accounts with the same password. This can be a logistical challenge but you can work out a system that makes it easier — see our article on remembering passwords for ideas
- Use two-factor authentication: if offered use it so that you get alerts and a permission prompt or authentication code when somebody (hopefully you) logs into your account on a new device
- Think carefully about what you say: some victims of trolling are doing nothing more than being themselves. But others use inflammatory language, insults and threats and then wonder why hundreds of people take offense and retaliate. Keep bravado at bay and your comments respectful and you will reduce the chances of being trolled (or of inadvertently trolling someone else)
- Manage your privacy: most social media accounts allow you to control what personal information is available to your followers and others. Avoid giving away too much personal information publicly that might allow a fraudster to build a jigsaw puzzle of your life or finances
- Think carefully about what you share: ensure that you do not give away too much about yourself or your family. We all love sharing our holiday photos but remember that this is a clue that your home may be empty
- Click with caution: with URL shorteners like t.co and bit.ly it’s not always clear what you are clicking on. If possible, check the destination of the link, think about the trustworthiness of who is sharing the link and be vigilant in case you find yourself on an inappropriate website that could contain a virus or spyware
- Question what’s real: a healthy dose of scepticism can help you decide what’s real and what’s fake. If it sounds too good to be true, you’re probably right. In the last few years ‘fake news’ has become a concern for politicians and truth-seekers so always consult a range of sources before settling on the ‘truth’. See our piece on fake news for more
- Beware of public Wi-Fi: this can be insecure and open up your device to hacking. You are generally safer using 4G or 3G, but if you need to use public Wi-Fi, always use a VPN to protect your connection
- Keep your devices and apps up to date: it seems obvious but this will help you to avoid viruses and vulnerabilities. If you use a desktop or laptop, always use anti-virus software and keep it updated
- Think ahead: much of what you share in social media is discoverable by others. If you post embarrassing photos of yourself and controversial opinions remember that it could be viewed by prospective employers as well as law enforcement agencies
What to do if you are caught out
When things go wrong, you’ll need to keep a level head and probably get help from someone who is not directly affected and can offer objective advice. Many cases of trolling and bullying can simply be ignored as any form of intervention can be like adding wood to the fire. If you deprive the bullies of fuel they often go away. That said, you may need to take a different approach if you kids or a vulnerable friend is being cyber-bullied.
If your account is hacked, you can usually ask the social media company to help you reclaim it from hackers. Of course, it’s easier to avoid this in the first place.
Identity theft and threats to your personal safety are more serious and should be reported to the police.
A few words about privacy settings
Facebook gives you a high level of control over your privacy settings. You can choose who sees your posts, who can send friend requests, who can see specific data about you and whether or not you allow search engines to index your profile. It’s usually best to start out quite cautiously with your privacy settings; you can always open them up later if you decide to share your content more widely.
And in conclusion…
This article possibly sounds rather scare-mongering, but that’s not the intention. I hope that you’ll be able to make a few adjustments to your enjoyment of social media and stay safe online. We look at how to have the most positive experience on social media in a sister article.
Let us know what you think using the feedback form below. Did we miss anything? If you liked this life hacks series article about how to stay safe on social media, please share it with friends or colleagues using the social media buttons below.
You might also like
- How to be happy on social media
- How to remember passwords
- How to spot fake news
- More Life Hacks articles
References UK Cyber Security Get Safe Online
How likely are you to recommend this article to friends, family or colleagues?