Finding and making friends online using social networking Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook has almost become a rite of passage. Students at universities around the world chronicle their lives by building online profiles and sharing personal information, photographs, and opinions in order to connect with new people. If you use one of these sites to stay in touch, to express yourself openly, and to find like-minded people, that’s great. Just be sure you stay smart and safe in the process.
This includes knowing what Facebook and other social networking sites intend to do with your profiles. In September 2007, Facebook announced that profiles will become searchable through its new Public Search Listings. If you have a profile posted on Facebook, and don’t want your name and profile picture indexed by one of the major search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN Search, you need to update your Facebook privacy settings immediately. While Facebook has some restrictions on the Public Search Listing of a profile, few people posted their information on Facebook thinking it would be made available to virtually anyone with an Internet connection. You need to take action to prevent this from happening.
You should consider some other important things as well. First, while you can meet new friends online, you may also come into contact with malicious people misrepresenting themselves. These are people you don’t want to know. Internet thieves and sexual predators are only too eager to exploit personal information found on social networking sites. They are out there and willing to hurt you unless you take precautions to protect yourself.
A second consideration, frequently overlooked, is that information you post on a social networking site may reveal indiscretions and worse to future employers, college professors, or even your parents. It’s on the record that students have been suspended and expelled for escapades and threats posted online. In some instances, potential job offers have been withdrawn because of information posted on a social networking site. Keep these things in mind when taking advantage of the pluses of social networking.
You can follow these tips to help you protect yourself on a social networking Web site:
Consider restricting access to your profile. If the site allows it, it’s a good idea to limit access to your profile. Don’t allow strangers to learn everything they can about you. It’s just not safe.
Keep your private information private. Never post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number, full birth date, financial information, or schedule. These will make you vulnerable to identity thieves, scams, burglars, or worse.
Choose a screen name that is different from your real name. Avoid using any personal information that would help someone identify or locate you offline.
Think twice before posting your photo. Photos can be used to identify you offline. They can also be altered or shared without your knowledge.
Don’t post information that makes you vulnerable to a physical attack. Revealing where you plan to meet your friends, your class schedule, or your street address is almost an open invitation for someone to find you. Remember that a photo in front of the Co-op tells strangers you are in Austin, and quite likely at the university.
Use your common sense. If you are contacted by a stranger online, find out if any of your established friends know the person, or run an online search on them (after all, you can use these things to your own benefit too!). If you agree to meet them, make it in a public place and invite others to join you.
Trust your instincts. If you feel threatened or uncomfortable during an online interaction, don’t continue the dialogue. Report any offensive behavior to the social networking Web site administrators.
Be suspicious. Don’t take any information you receive from a new online contact at face value. The Internet makes it easy for people to say or do things they would never say or do in public or in face-to-face interactions. Protecting yourself is the smart thing to do.