How to Make Sure Facebook Doesn’t Ruin Your Life
There are more than 1 billion people friending, posting, sharing—and making horrible mistakes—on Facebook. Don’t be one them!
Imagine yourself a few years from now. (Can you see yourself? Wow, you’re tall!) You’re a senior in high school and you’re planning for college. Applications? Done. SAT? Aced. Recommendation letters? Glowing. Personal essay? Brought tears to Mom’s eyes.
So when that e-mail from your dream college pops up, you just know it will be good news. You open it with a big smile on your face. Accepted? No. DENIED!
You’ll never know for sure whether those photos you posted on Facebook (you know, the ones that got you grounded and that your dad said would ruin your life) are the reason you were rejected. But you’ll always be haunted by the possibility. The fact is, an increasing number of colleges are looking up applicants on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube. After all, in a toss-up between two qualified applicants, whom would you choose: A) the person with albums of party pics—many with a clearly visible keg—or B) the person who’s been tending to the organic vegetable patch in the community garden and using social media to share the progress?
The same goes for future employers. “Your social media profile can be more revealing than your résumé,” says Renee Fricks, vice president of human resources at Imperial Capital, an investment bank in Los Angeles, California. And not just in the obvious ways. “Posting status updates with poor grammar can be even more detrimental than inappropriate pictures, since your writing and communication skills likely reflect more on your ability than what you do after hours,” warns Fricks.
So here you are, part of the first generation of human beings to come of age at a time when it’s normal to document and comment on your every move—and everyone else’s. Pioneers must be bold! No one’s asking you to take down your profile or stop posting on Facebook—we haven’t lost our minds! But you’re in uncharted waters here, so use our guide to help you stay safe.
“I lost out on a job because of comments I made on Facebook.”
Kim*, a high school student in New York City, heard about a baby-sitting job through a co-worker of her dad’s. After a few weeks of radio silence, her father found out why she hadn’t been hired: Kim’s potential employer had looked at her Facebook page and saw her cover photo, which was a picture of a character from an offensive HBO comedy. Kim and her friends had commented on the photo with quotes from the show—which, truth be told, were pretty rude. The mom didn’t get that they were joking. “It’s easy to feel like Facebook is a safe place to share inside jokes,” says Kristelle Lavallee, from the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. But saying something to your besties is very different from putting it on the Internet. Even if you’re only quoting a television show, as Kim was, your post could easily be misinterpreted by people who don’t know you personally. And let’s face it, there’s a good chance an employer, parent, or teacher may not interpret your words in the same way your peers would.
The Bottom Line
Before you post a comment, say it out loud. Would it be embarrassing if someone overheard you? Would they think less of you? If so, let it go.
Also, Kim had her privacy set to “friends only.” It turns out that setting didn’t include cover photos or the comments that went with them.
“I posted a photo on Facebook that led to a robbery of my home.”
In May 2012, a 17-year-old Australian girl posted a photo on her Facebook page of a large amount of cash she was helping to count at her grandmother’s home in Sydney. About seven hours later, two masked men with a club and a knife entered her parents’ house 75 miles away looking for the money. Though the thieves were in the wrong place, they went ahead and robbed the house anyway.
Fine, you might not be foolish enough to post a pic of all your cash, but there are things you might not consider dangerous that could actually be an invitation for trouble. “When you write a post saying you’re going to be away on vacation for a week, you’re telling people your home will be vacant and almost asking for someone to burglarize your house,” says Judge Tom Jacobs, author of Teen Cyberbullying Investigated. “You might think that if you set strict privacy settings, your posts are private. But everything can be found once you post it,” he says.
If you say you’re checking in at the mall, a party, or a movie, a potential predator has directions to find you. You might think none of your friends are “predators” and that nobody you know is going to do anything to hurt you. But who do you think the masked men were in this case? It’s reasonable to think they were the girl’s Facebook friends, or friends of one of them.
The Bottom Line
There are bad guys on Facebook too. If someone could use the information to hurt you, don’t post it. Revealing the name of your school, your address, your vacation destination, or where you’ll be can be dangerous.
“I got my friend in trouble by tagging him in a Facebook photo.”
Dylan,* a high school junior, had just scored his driver’s license, so he took his friends out for a celebratory ride. To commemorate the occasion, he took a photo of his very first passengers, posted it on Facebook, and tagged everyone. Who wouldn’t? Little did he know, one of his friends was forbidden to ride with any new drivers unless an adult was in the car. Even though his settings were on “friends only,” his friend’s mom happened to see the photo and the passenger ended up grounded.
Your privacy settings should be set to “friends only,” but when your photos and status updates become accessible to hundreds of your so-called friends, you never know what they might do with that information. “A friend can download your photo and pass it along to a third party,” says Lavallee. “And then your privacy settings don’t matter much.” There is almost no limit to how far that photo can go once you put it on your page. And, as this junior discovered, even something seemingly harmless can have consequences—not just for you but for your friends as well.
The Bottom Line
Before you post, get a thumbs-up from everyone else in the picture—and ask your friends to do likewise. Of course don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your parent, grandparent, teacher, or principal (not to mention a police officer) to see.
*Names have been changed for privacy.