A guide to maintaining privacy and staying safe when social networking

As you’re most probably aware, social networking is a bit of a minefield that can land you in hot water if you don’t exercise a little common sense and caution. A few careless posts on Facebook, or ill-thought out tweets, have cost people dearly in terms of their lives and careers. With that in mind, we’ve compiled this guide to keeping your privacy, and putting caution and safety first in general, when you’re social networking.

And the first golden rule is…

Don't assume your digital correspondence is private

Our memories are faulty. What we see and hear is often misheard, or misremembered. Computers have perfect memories. What you say online, what you post, is a perfect reproduction of the original. It can all be saved, and it can all be retrieved or recovered (Google Search, in particular, can index everything). Facebook, emails, instant messages, Twitter DMs can all, one way or the other, be copied and shared.

Don't post anything you don't want others to see

We've all seen enough leaked naughty pics of starlets to know that people just can't resist the temptation to share a saucy photo with their current paramour. If you don't want your parents, friends and co-workers to see these shots – don't take them and don't share them with anyone.

Manage your privacy settings

No one is going to stop using social networks, so let's at least close up the Swiss-cheese-like security holes in each of them. Services like Facebook often start out in sharing mode. You want to dig in to the settings menu and make sure that what you do share with your Facebook friends cannot be shared outside your social circle.

Share with fewer people

Twitter, Facebook, and even good old fashioned email make it super-simple to share thoughts with larger and larger groups of people. Many on Twitter actively seek to grow their lists of followers so they can share with more folks. It's a wonderful thing, until you accidentally share the thing you never wanted to with everyone. Look at your lists of friends, email contacts, Twitter followers and start culling. Cut the lists down and start sharing less with a much more trusted group of people.

Clear out old accounts

Part of living the online social lifestyle is signing up with every new social network in existence. They're all so much fun and so interesting. Problem is they all ask for your info and typically are sucking in information about your other social activities on other sites. Over time, you stop using many of these services – we typically only use two or three at a time – but the remnants of your former self remain on these now disused services. Go clean house. Shut down the accounts and regain control of your digital existence. For tips on how to do so, see our guide to deleting your accounts from any website.

Keep a record of your own correspondence

Since you know that everything you write and post online can be copied, and will persist even if you delete it, start keeping records of your own digital correspondence. Keep all personal tweets, important emails and key personal interactions on Facebook. Be sure to have a copy of all photos you've posted . People you've corresponded with should not be the only ones who have this data. Having it all at your fingertips will give you a more global view of how you comport yourself in the digital world – and proof in case anyone tries to misrepresent what you've done online.

Don't say anything to anyone online that you wouldn't say to their face

We get very brave online. We yell (ALL CAPS) and say nasty things to other people. In real life (IRL) we'd never be that bold. The rules should not be different online. Use good sense in IRL and online. If you're really angry, take a deep breath, count to ten and then take a short walk. When you sit back down in front of your computer you'll realise that sending that -mail, making that Facebook post or tweeting that bit of venom was a stupid idea.

Don't share your location

I don't have a problem with location-aware services, but I would turn off all broadcast features that tell the various social networks exactly where you are at any given time. Also, do not post a note on any social network that you're going on holiday. This is an invitation for criminals to visit your home (yes, they can figure out where you live). Share the photos and stories of your family trip when you get back home.

Don't post pictures of your children

If you have not managed your privacy settings in Facebook, you simply can't post personal photos. Do you want people outside your inner circle of family and friends to know you have young children?

Children under 13 should not be on these social networks

You children will start asking for access to social networks long before they become teenagers. Just say no. Children in particular do not understand how emotion and intent get mixed up on social network entries and things can quickly spiral out of control.