The Dean Blog

April 16, 2009

Social Networking and “Safety”

Filed under: Student advice — LBA @ 2:55 pm
Tags: , , ,


Many university students (and faculty and staff as well) now utilize social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Xanga, etc. as a way to communicate with friends and family and build their social circles.  Use of online blogs (like this one) and instant update sites, such as Twitter, are also on the rise.  While such online resources can provide us with a new and exciting way to make previously impossible connections, we have to be attentive to the potential negative impacts as well.  Some of these relate to online privacy issues (for example identity theft or cyber-stalking), others relate more to our relationships (when a family member sees a picture intended for friends that may show behavior you would rather family not see), and others are job related (a potential employer pulls up your blog).  Due to these issues, we all have to be careful with how we utilize the Internet on a day to day basis.  In the following paragraphs, I present some of the tips provided by online security experts and career planners regarding the effective, enjoyable, and safe use of social networking on the web.

Check your settings – Typically, social networking sites have a low level of security as a default, because the assumption is that you would not be using them if you didn’t want the information to be shared.  However, that level of security is not enough for most of us.  Each time you join a new site, and periodically during membership, check the security settings to be sure that you are comfortable with the level of information going out.  If you plan to post information about your personal life, add security elements that will help prevent that information from being accessed by strangers or potential employers.

•  Think about permanency – The internet is composed of connections between what amount to giant storage devices.  Everything you post, in any form, leaves traces of itself behind, whether you delete it or not.  And, even deleted messages or posts may be seen (and remembered or passed on) before you get a chance to remove them.  Additionally, a substantial number of websites online are “dead sites” that an author has started and forgotten about.  If you get busy and move on, your Facebook page (and all that incriminating information) may still be there for years.

•  Understand the interconnections – Don’t assume that putting privacy settings on your social networking sites assure you that information you post will actually remain private.  Once you post a picture/opinion/story, it can be copied onto the sites of friends (and then onto their friends’ sites, and so on) and your information is now publicly available. That picture of you behaving “badly” can then become part of a public conversation over which you have no control.

•  Think about who you are communicating with – We are all aware that people can (and do) lie aboout themselves and their intentions online, but we tend to believe that we are better judges of character than that.  We aren’t.  Just as we can be misled in a face-to-face interaction, we can be in online interaction.  In fact, it’s even easier online.  Online “scammers” or theifs will go to great effort to create convincing personas and maintain them long enough to lull us into believing that we “know” them.  As you interact with others, ask yourself if you would want your 13 year old sibling/child/neice/friend to share this type of information with an online “friend.”  If the answer is no, then you likely should not share it.  Ask yourself if this is information you would share with someone that you had just met in a bar.  If the answer is no, then you likely should not share it.

Remember the public nature – The Internet is a public domain.  It is not a diary or journal to express your deepest thoughts.  The act of blogging or tweeting may feel much like writing a diary entry.  But, unlike the diary with the little gold lock you had as a child, this is a public communication medium.  When you write that entry about your rendevous with a handsome/beautiful stranger, your family could see it.  When you mention that you took the day off “sick” and are now about to go to the shore, your boss may see it.  When you discuss the ins and outs of your workplace (good and bad) a future employer could see it and make assumptions about you as a worker.

•  Don’t underestimate how many people are looking – Early in the life of Myspace and Facebook (and the rest), these sites were primarily viewed by friends who had been given direct links and were interested.  Now, they are being used by official agencies (police, university adminstrators, employers) to search for problems or issues among their constituents, including students, employees, and job applicants.  While you may believe that your school or employer should not be seeking information about you, that doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t.  If the information you put online doesn’t present you in a bad light, you never have to worry about who sees it.

It’s fun to network online, and it can be a good way to make both social and occupational contacts that enhance your life.  But, as with anything else, the more care we take as we engage this form of communication, the more likely we are to reap the benefits and avoid the negatives.  So, to quote one of my favorite shows from the 80s, “be careful out there.”

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