Social media has become a giant phenomenon that has cast a wave over almost every part of the planet, connecting people across the world, allowing people to make contact where otherwise they would not be able to and giving people the chance to explore neighbouring cultures and lifestyles from their bedrooms.

Online communities have existed from the birth of the internet, starting with online forums and bulletin boards. Where people from all over the world would have the opportunity to connect with people with similar interests or share information regarding specific topics, all at the touch of a button.

The best way to think about social media is as one big get-together, apart from the fact that you have almost every detail and thought on a sign posted to you. Fair enough, people you know can find out more about you and you can find out details and interesting things about them too. But there will also be people that you do not know, people that are total strangers to you. These people have access to all of that information, all of the tiny details that you share, and are able to manipulate and warp that data however they please.

Also keep in mind that social media/networking sites are, in essence, massive corporate organisations, privately owned. These organisations make money by collecting data and details from an individual and selling that data on to other individuals, or most of the time to third-party advertising companies.

Most people that use social media and networking sites have the illusion that these sites offer them the opportunity and freedom to share their interests, details about themselves, and even their deepest thoughts in a safe environment. This is false.

When you sign-up to a social media site, you are pretty much leaving the freedoms of the internet in the dust and entering an industry that has the power to access all of your personal data where you are controlled, entirely by the owners of these organisations. It is amazing to imagine the amount of trust we, as a society, give the individuals that run these sites. Handing over constant information about ourselves on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Another common misunderstanding regarding social networking sites is that we often rely too much on a site’s ‘privacy’ settings. Yes, privacy settings are very good at keeping your details safe from other members of a social media site, especially from individuals that you believe could use your personal data and details wrongly. But, privacy settings do not protect an individual from the owners of these sites. As soon as you sign-up to any social networking site, you may as well be signing a consent form to the owners of the site to collect and use whatever data you choose to upload onto that social networking platform.

However, social media does not have to be all doom and gloom. Social media can be a great way to share your interests and connect with people all over the world and does in fact give you a certain freedom to express yourself to your friends and acquaintances, if you do it in a safe manner. There are many ways that you can protect yourself when using social media and therefore allow yourself to have fun and explore, without the dangers that can become apparent if you do not implement safety measures.

First thing to think about is, who can actually access the information you put online? As stated earlier, anyone can view and collect the information that you put online, even if they do not use the data in a malicious manner, it is still pretty uncomfortable that a complete stranger can collect all of the data that you put online about yourself. Be wary as well that, as previously stated, a site’s owners nearly always has access to pretty much all of your information, privacy settings or not. These owners are not robots, they are not perfect, they are individuals just like you and I.

Next, it is so important that if you do implement any privacy settings, you read exactly what these privacy features entail and what sort of measures they take to protect your data and yourself against someone trying to use your data against you. Unless a site has really thorough default privacy settings, you should almost always take action to understand these default features and change them to protect you as an individual. Default features are not a one-size-fits-all, they are simply created from a survey that measures what most people want from a privacy settings feature. Remember, you are not most people, you are an individual and as much as you would like to express your individuality on the site, you still need to use these privacy features to suit your individual requirements.