Social media can bring us together, and even distract us sometimes from our troubles—but it also can expose us to scammers, hackers, and…less than pleasant experiences.
Don't panic though: you can keep the balance towards the positive with just a few common-sense steps, and we have some of the most vital ones below. When it comes to staying safe on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, a lot of it is common sense, with a sprinkling of extra awareness.
1. Set Your Audience
Facebook is the social network with the most granular control when it comes to the visibility of your posts: whenever you're about to post something to your timeline, you'll see a drop-down menu that lets you choose who can actually see it.
You can set some posts to be visible to your family, for example, and other posts visible to colleagues from work—just make sure you've checked. Be wary of using the Public option, which means anyone can see the post online (even people without Facebook accounts).
2. Choose Public or Private
Instagram and Twitter aren't as nuanced as Facebook. Your main feed of photos or tweets is either private (so only approved friends can see it), or public (so anyone can see it, with or without an Instagram or Twitter account). That's something to consider before posting, or even signing up for an account if you don't have one already.
You can change your accounts back and forth between public and private if you need to. In Twitter settings in the app or on the web, head to Privacy and safety and then Protect your Tweets. From the Instagram settings screen in the app or on the web, select Privacy and Security then Private Account.
3. Lock Down Your Stories
There is an exception to this public or private choice on Instagram. You can opt to hide your stories from certain people, even while your main photo feed is public. In addition, you can also post stories to a preselected group of close friends rather than all of your followers.
In the Instagram mobile app, open your profile page, then tap the menu icon (top right) and Settings. Tap Privacy then Story and you can choose contacts who you don't want to see your story, as well as set up your list of close friends (if you've configured a list, you'll see a Close friends option when you come to post).
4. Protect Your Posts
Once a new post is out in the wild, you have a few ways to protect it. Twitter lets you hide certain replies to your tweets—click or tap the arrow next to a reply to one of your tweets, then choose Hide reply. The author of the reply won't know it's been hidden.
On Instagram, you can block comments on both your public photo feed and your stories. From settings in the app, tab either Comments or Story to do this—you can, for example, only allow people you are following on Instagram to leave comments. You can also automatically mute comments that Instagram thinks are offensive, or turn on the Manual Filter to set specific words that you don't want to appear. What's more, comments that have already been left on your posts can be deleted too, by either swiping left on them (iOS) or pressing and holding on them (Android).
On your Facebook posts, click the three dots next to any comment (on the web) or long-press any comment (in the app) to hide or delete it. As on Twitter, the author behind the comment won't get a notification about this, but they might notice their comment has been erased if they open up your post and check it again.
5. Block Problematic Users
You can block other users who are causing you trouble—it means they can no longer interact with anything you do on the social network, or send you messages, though the exact rules vary between each platform. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, open up someone's profile, then tap the three dots and choose Block.
Instagram gives you an extra option: Restrict. It's not a full block, but it does mean any comments that this person leaves on your posts will have to be approved by you before they appear, and it also means they can't see when you're online. Instagram explains more about the feature here.
6. Mute Other Users
If you need to hide someone from your feeds, but can't actually block them for whatever reason (old family ties, perhaps), you can mute them instead—they won't know they've been muted, but their posts and comments won't appear to you.
On Twitter, go to the relevant profile, tap the three dots to bring up the menu, and then choose Mute. On Instagram, you open up a profile, then tap Following and Mute (you can mute either posts or stories, or both). On Facebook, the equivalent move is to open someone's profile, then tap the Friends button, then Unfollow—you'll stay friends but you'll no longer be following their posts.
7. Remember the Reply and Comment Rules
Always be wary of replying to someone or commenting on one of their posts, because it might increase your exposure more than you expect, especially if they're running a public Instagram or Twitter profile, or a Facebook account with a lot of friends.
The exact rules vary between social networks, but the general rule is this: replies and comments on a post can be seen by anyone who has access to that post, regardless of whether you are personally connected to them or not. Your comment's visibility usually won't be limited to your friends, or the mutual friends you have with the author of the original post.
8. Stop People from Tagging You
Not everyone is comfortable with being tagged in posts, comments, and photos, but luckily the big social networks all have ways to limit this.
For Facebook, you need to go to the Timeline and tagging page in your settings on the web or in the app. Here you get to review posts that you're tagged in before they appear on your timeline, and limit the wider audience of those posts too. You can't actually stop people from tagging you completely, though you can go to a post or photo after it's been uploaded and remove a tag.
On Instagram, open up the settings menu inside the app, then choose Tags and Manually approve tags to stop tags appearing before you've approved them. On Twitter, you can't stop mentions, but you can stop getting tagged in photos—tap Privacy and safety then Photo tagging from the settings in the app.
9. Be Careful with Your Location
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all let you tag posts with a location, which is great for showing off where you are, and not so great for your privacy. Be especially wary of sharing locations close to where you live or where you work—anything that could be used by someone who wants to pretend to be you, or someone who wants to find you.
We're not saying you should never check into places, but use the feature sparingly (it's easy to turn on and off, whatever app you're using). As an added bonus, it gives online marketers less data to work with when trying to target you with advertising, too.
10. Be Careful with Your Personal Information
On a related note, think carefully about what you include in your posts, with the tips we've mentioned about post visibility in mind. You're no doubt sensible enough not to share your credit card details with the world, but revealing any sort of personal or sensitive information—like an innocent photo of a boarding pass, say—might leave you exposed, especially if your posts are public.
Are you repeatedly sharing the name of your pet, a name which also happens to be the password to your social media accounts? Can your social followers work out when your birthday is—perhaps the same birthday that's used as a PIN code for your phone? Are you revealing your phone carrier or bank of choice, opening the door for someone else to pretend to be you?
11. Protect Your Logins
Keeping your accounts secure is also important. Avoid using the same password across multiple accounts, or passwords that can easily be guessed (perhaps by the information you're sharing on your actual feeds). If you're struggling to stay on top of all your username and password combinations, use a password manager.
Secondly, make sure two-factor authentication (2FA) is switched on for all your accounts (it's supported on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and many other digital services). 2FA means that when your username and password is used to log in on a new device, a third piece of information is required (usually a code from your phone)—so if your username and password leak out, your account is still safe until you can change your password.
12. Disconnect Third-Party Apps
You probably use your social media accounts to log into other areas of your digital life, and you might also have added various add-ons and plug-ins on top of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook too. There's nothing inherently bad in this, but each extra connection increases the risk of your security and privacy being compromised, if only a little.
Be cautious of connecting too many apps and services to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and be selective about what you add. When you no longer use a third-party app, disconnect it—just in case that quiz app you once signed into using Facebook gets taken over by a malware company.
Seeing the apps you've got connected and breaking those connections isn't too difficult, and you can do it by logging into your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts. We've written more about this in our guide here.