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Staying safe online: Social networking

group on computersSome of us have a lot to say and the net is a great way to get our views heard. But what happens when things go wrong?

Social networking is all about sharing. The important questions are: what are you sharing, and who are you sharing it with? Follow this advice to find out how to stay safe, and what to do if things go wrong.

Privacy settings

Make sure you're aware of who can see what you're sharing. On some sites, it's simple: on Twitter, either everyone can see what you post, or nobody can see it until you approve them. Others, like Facebook, have complex privacy options, which let you control who sees what more carefully but can be harder to set up.

Remember that privacy settings aren't watertight. For example, while apps like SnapChat do their best to make what you send 'self-destruct', it's not hard for someone to save your messages without you knowing if they want to – and if someone gets access to your phone or computer, all bets are off. Privacy settings can help to protect you, but you still need to think before you share.

Who do you trust?

It's one thing limiting who you share things with – but who will those people share with? Once you've put something online, what happens next is out of your control, so make sure you're only sharing with people you trust. If you really don't want something shared around, then don't post it.

Remember, you're not just trusting in whether people can keep a secret – you're also trusting them not to install a virus or have an easy-to-guess password, since anyone who gets into their account will be able to see anything you post.

Fake friends

Research shows that many people will happily accept a friend request from someone they've never met – and who doesn't actually exist. Do this, and suddenly you could be sharing with anyone. Avoid accepting requests from people you've never heard of – however good they look in their profile picture.

Sneakier people might set up a profile pretending to be someone you really do know. This is harder to spot, but try to stay aware of the risk – and if one person has two accounts, find out why.

Deleting things is harder than you think

The 'delete' button might seem like a good back-up plan, but if you make a mistake it can't always save you. Once you've posted something, you won't know if someone else has seen it, saved it or taken a screenshot. If they have, then deleting the original can't stop it spreading. It's worth taking a bit of extra time to think before you post instead.

Account security

Being careful about your friends list and what you share is important, but if someone can get into your online accounts then all your hard work was for nothing. Follow these tips to keep your account safe:

  • Don't make your password something obvious, like the football team you support or your partner's name
  • Avoid using just a word or name, even if it's a random one – this makes it easier for automated attacks to get into your account
  • Don't use the same password in different places: if one site gets hacked, criminals might get access to all your accounts
  • Never tell anybody your password
  • Log out of your accounts when leaving a computer
  • Put a PIN or password on your phone

If someone does get into one of your accounts, change your other passwords to make sure they don't get any further and contact technical support at the website they've accessed.

What to do if things go wrong

  • Most sites allow you to block and report people who are being abusive, so you don't have to hear from them again
  • Remember that online crime is still crime: if you're being harassed, threatened or you're a victim of fraud, you can go to the police
  • If you need to, you can make yourself harder to find by using a false name and an anonymous profile picture – people you trust will still know it's you
  • Don't forget that you can always delete your account if it's more trouble than it's worth

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