Beginner's guide to social media and privacy controls

Social media tags - istock/Bet-NoireThere is no shortage of buzzwords when it comes to describing the internet and its functions. And arguably the inescapable buzzword for the internet in the last decade is social media.

In recent years, “social media” is a term that has been thrown around to describe a variety of new and growing Internet technologies. From more traditional “social media” channels like Facebook and Twitter, to news aggregators Digg and Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr, blogs, vlogs, and the rise of app-first “social media” platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, pretty much everything these days is described as “social media.” This ever-growing list of social media platforms is enough to leave your heading spinning.

What is social media?

So what exactly is social media? Can it really be all of those websites and applications? The answer is yes. To learn what social media is, forget about the technical jargon. The best way to understand what it is ‘social media’ is to break down the word to its two parts:

“Social”: in most contexts refers to a gathering of individuals and the creation of Communities.

“Media”: commonly refers to an instrument of communication.

Broken down to its most basic form, social media is exactly what it says it claims to be…social. The social aspect of ‘social media’ occurs through the interaction among and between different users, creating a ‘social’ atmosphere.

Where the difference comes into play between traditional social interactions and interactions via social media is in its “media” aspect. Traditionally, interpersonal communication and social interactions have taken place with little (telephone, telegram, or mail) to no barriers (face to face) to interaction. In social media, the medium is integral to interactions taking place. So for users to engage in social activities, an instrument – or a platform – is necessary; that is where social media websites and applications come in. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and many others, allow users to participate in social groups, interact with one another and communicate online.

Open and closed social media platforms

One of the biggest concerns about social media is its public nature. There is a common misconception that all interactions that occur on social media are public, and that’s simply not the case. Communication and interactions that take place on social media platforms can be closed or open to the public, depending on the platforms design.

Social media platforms fall somewhere within a spectrum of closed to open platforms. Take Twitter, for example. That launched as a micro-blogging site designed to send short bursts of information into the world. Twitter is an open social media platform. WhatsApp, on the other hand, is a closed social media platform. The smartphone messaging application is designed to send messages to contacts in your address book that are using the app, no matter where they are located in the world. For WhatsApp, in order to send messages to someone, you must have their phone number. Communications through the WhatsApp occur privately between the sender and the recipient, making the app a closed social media platform.

Despite the two examples above, not all social media platforms and applications are as cut and dry and can be classified as either an open or a closed platform. Facebook for example, is a social network meant to connect users with their friends worldwide. But depending on a user’s privacy and control settings, some details from their profile and posts can be publicly shared, or limited to a select group of friends. How open a user’s profile is on Facebook depends on the user. For this reason, Facebook is neither a closed nor an open social media platform, but rather one that takes from both ends of the spectrum.

What broadband do you need to use social media?

Social media does not generally require a superfast fibre broadband connection. Most social media platforms are not excessively demanding so a cheap ADSL connection or 3G mobile broadband service will suffice.

But if you frequently share lots of content to social media - especially video - then superfast broadband is helpful as fibre optic broadband and 4G provide quicker upload speeds.

Whichever type of broadband you choose, we would recommend an unlimited package so you never have to worry about restrictions or extra costs.

Why should you use social media?

With its ability to bypass traditional time and distance constraints, social media brings us closer to friends and contacts in all parts of the globe, and fosters a sense of proximity to people we wouldn’t otherwise encounter. It also gives a platform for individuals to express themselves and feel gratified through endorsements of ‘likes’ and comments, or shares. With all the benefits social media offers, it’s unsurprising that more and more individuals are using these platforms, especially as they see their network doing the same.

But for all the positives there are some downsides, too. Privacy is a key concern, and all parents should learn about social media, even if they don’t use it themselves, so they can understand the issues affecting kids.

The importance of privacy controls

Sharing content, whether it is personal images, opinions on current affairs, or links to other online content is integral to social media activity. While there are many benefits to sharing information on social media and expanding your own world, social media is not without its downsides too.

Users should be aware of content they post online, as it this information easily be misconstrued by others, manipulated, or used out of context and without permission. Individuals with bad intent can manipulate images posted. Personal details and information shared can be stolen and used in identity theft, and these matters are just the beginning. Social media users do not need to cut themselves off from social media to protect their privacy online. Use of some simple privacy controls can go a long way to protecting your private details and information from falling into the public sphere or the wrong hands.

Whether you’re on closed social networks like WhatsApp, open networks like Twitter, or networks that fall in between like Facebook, all platforms have privacy controls that allow you to decide what to share and to whom.

Before you begin sharing content on your social platforms, take some time and look into the control functions of each, so you understand the reach of the information you are sharing and the people that might see it. To help you get started on some of the most popular social media networks, here are some key privacy controls to be on the lookout for:

How to adjust your privacy controls on Facebook

With over 2 billion active monthly users, Facebook is undoubtedly the world’s largest social media platform. What began in 2004 as an exclusive social network for Harvard University students has grown into a global phenomenon. On Facebook, users can add their friends, send messages, upload and share photos and albums, chat with friends or post on their ‘walls’, share web content, and stream live videos. But, depending on your privacy settings, sometimes this content may be visible to others not in your network. So how can you protect your information on Facebook?

Using Facebook’s privacy control functions, there are multiple ways you can limit how much information from you profile and posts make it to the public sphere.

In the Privacy tab, under the Setting option, you’ll find the most basic of Facebook’s privacy controls: who can reach you, who can see your stuff, and who can look you up. For each of these settings, users have the power to decide just how far they want their content to reach. With the options of yourself, your friends, friends of friends, and everyone, it is up to you to decide how many degrees away from your inner circle you want your information shared.

If there are a few names among your friends for whom you would prefer to limit details, visit the Blocking tab under the Setting option. Here, you can add selected friends to restricted lists, or block specific individuals from contacting you.

How to adjust your privacy settings on Twitter

Launched in 2006, Twitter is a micro-blogging website, focused on sending short snippets (tweets limited to 140 characters) into the world that are hopefully useful or interesting to others.

Twitter users can choose to follow their friends or discover other Twitter users from across the world based on interest or regional or international trending subjects, or topics of conversation.

Tweets from those you choose to follow appear on your home page. Over time, Twitter’s rapidity and fluidity have made it a go to source for conversations about trending topics, a source for breaking news, and amateur civilian reporting.

Based on its purpose, Twitter is one of the most open social media networks. However, that is not to say the platform does not contain privacy functions, because it does. Twitter users can choose to up the privacy of their Twitter account via the Settings menu from their profile. Under the Privacy and safety tab, users can then opt to protect the tweets they share from the general public, hide the location they’re tweeting from, prevent from being tagged in photos by others, or prevent their account from being found by others.

Enabling many of these functions will significantly reduce the amount of information publicly shared using your Twitter account, which is probably for the best anyways, as unlike Facebook, tweets can be uncovered through Google’s search engine if you haven’t enabled privacy settings on your account.

How to adjust your privacy settings on Instagram

From the increasing popularity of sharing images online, came Instagram. What began in 2010 as a photo-sharing social networking app made specifically for sharing images directly from your smartphone has since expanded into one of the world’s largest social networking websites for photo and video-sharing.

Similar to Facebook and Twitter, on Instagram users can follow their friends and family and upload and share photos and videos with followers and the larger Instagram community.

For users wanting to maintain the privacy of their images and videos, the privacy function is easy to enable. Simply head into the Settings menu on the Instagram app and turn on the privacy feature. This feature allows users selectively approve requests from new followers to see their photos, however, take note, if your account was previously public, it does not affect those already following you.

How to adjust your privacy settings on YouTube

The video-sharing website is another open social media network. It allows users to upload their own videos to the platform and share them with a global audience. Since its foundation, YouTube has become the go-to video sharing network, creating a community of vloggers, musicians, all of its own.

YouTube users can limit the reach of videos they share on YouTube. Privacy settings can be changed on each video shared. Videos can be made public, for everyone to see; private, available to select users; or, unlisted, which allows anyone with the video’s URL link to view the video but does not allow it to be discovered via YouTube's search.

How to adjust your privacy settings on Snapchat

Unlike many of the other social media applications, Snapchat is a closed network. Users are only able to find other users if they know the specific username or have the phone number linked to the user’s account. While users can share their snaps to stories, the only users that can view your stories are the ones that have added you. Although, to keep things private on the social platform, there’s always the option to direct message your snaps to a select few friends.

Issues facing parents and children on social media

Knowing how to enable the various privacy functions is necessary, particularly for parents with children already using social media. By nature, children are quick to catch on to new technologies and with many of their peers using these social platforms, they’re easily encouraged to join too.

Children should be encouraged to participate on social media, but with studies showing that four out of five children do not feel safe on social media and the UK Children’s Commissioner calling social media ‘binging’ is as bad as junk food, parents should heed the warnings and monitor their child’s activity on all social platforms.

Raised as a connected generation, many children are aware of the dangers that come with oversharing online; however, others might be dismissive towards the consequences of oversharing. Preteens and teenagers specifically need to be monitoring for the images they are sharing via their social platforms. While some take to Snapchat believing that images disappear moments after they are shared, there’s always the possibility that the end receiver screenshots the image and shares it with a wider audience. And these concerns aren’t limited to Snapchat – it’s something social media users should consider every time they share an image.

The concerns for parents do not end there. While in past decades, bullying at school was a concern for many parents and children, with social media networks, these worries do not stop once you are in your own home. With one in three children having been a victim of cyberbullying, it’s vital for parents to be monitoring their children’s social activities and know what’s going on in their social lives online, as well as offline.

Self-censorship is the key to control on social media

Social media is made for sharing, that much is unavoidable, but exercising control in the information we share online is the key to using these platforms effectively and safely. Self-censorship does not discourage participation; rather, it encourages participation with the right information.

Social media users should not fear from sharing their images, but instead pay attention to the details in the images you are posting. Share information about your opinions and general details about yourself with your network, but avoid sharing specific details online that could help a stranger easily identify you offline. Perhaps the best filter to keep in mind when it comes to sharing content on social media is if you would not want your family or employer to see it, then do not share it.