oversharing on social mediaThis year’s tech headlines taught us just how brittle the state of online privacy can be. While we can’t control the policies of the websites that we use, we can control whether or not we use these services and how we use them if we choose to stay. One of the ways consumers expose their identities is by providing the service they’re using, like social media sites, with a lot of their information. This phenomenon is called oversharing. In this post, we’re discussing the issue of oversharing on social media and how it can negatively impact users in the current online environment.

When is it too much?

When it comes to interacting offline, most of us have a solid grasp of what constitutes “TMI,” or too much information, by the time we’re adults. Despite this, the growth of social media and social sharing has encouraged us to disregard boundaries that would otherwise be respected during an in-person interaction. These platforms make us the stars of our own lives – either through video, photos, written posts or other means. In turn, we’re encouraged to produce and curate content that we feel best represents who we are. Additionally, a plethora of psychological factors make this way of using social media more stimulating, eroding common sense notions surrounding TMI.

Although the dangers of oversharing have repeatedly been highlighted, excessive oversharing is still common. Just how bad is it? There aren’t a ton of statistics to reference, but the Child Rescue Coalition recently began a campaign to combat child exposure on the Internet, and it found that the average child will have over 1,500 photos of themselves online by the time they are five years old. Aside from parental oversharing, other types of oversharing occur, too. While we’ve heard the occasional story about individuals losing opportunities due to oversharing on social media, some early data on social media services indicated that both teens and adults knew people who overshared deeply personal information both on these services and offline. Although we weren’t able to find any recent data on oversharing, it’s probably that those numbers only grew over time — and hopefully slowed following the Cambridge Analytica news.

What is oversharing?

The definition of oversharing can be somewhat subjective and contextual, but when it comes to your safety and security, you should avoid excessively sharing the following:

  • Posts and photos about your child. Given that parental sharing on social media is usually conducted without a child’s consent, it’s arguably the most problematic type of sharing. That’s why parents should ideally be conservative about how much they share online about their children. They should especially avoid sharing compromising or embarrassing information that could be used to bully their child or even discount their child’s abilities in the future. Since the Internet never forgets, it makes a lot of sense for parents to consider what a child’s future partner or boss might think of what they’re sharing about their child.
  • Location tagging photos and statuses. You should avoid tagging your location, known as geotagging, to your photos and statuses, as these have implications for your safety. If you’re away from home or on vacation, it could be an invitation for someone to break into your home. Similarly, if you tend to frequent places near home and you share that information, it narrows down the range a stalker or thief has to search to determine where you live. So although you may be excited to visit your favorite ice cream shop with your family, it’s best to refrain from tagging the location of the shop or your family member’s home. These can also be tip-offs to would-be burglars looking for easy targets.
  • Shopping sprees. If you buy new things, it could be a sign of your wealth or proof that you’ve experienced a windfall of money. This can act an invitation to both identity thieves and other criminals who might either want your credit or money for themselves. As such, if you make a large purchase, such as a new car or a home, it’s usually best to keep your celebration offline.
  • Compromising information. Any information that could be used to harm you personally, professionally or in other ways should be considered off limits on social media. If you ditched work, hate your coworkers, got into an auto accident, just signed a contract for something important, etc., avoid sharing it on social media. Not only could posting this information harm your reputation, but even in benign cases (like sharing a recent medical diagnosis), the information could be data mined or used to identify you to a third-party you’re unfamiliar with. You’ll also want to think before you post photos that could potentially be compromising as well, such as those that could be deemed offensive or show you in a poor light. Photos can say just as much — or more — as text, and sometimes they can come back to haunt you.
  • Personal identifying information. This one hopefully goes without saying, but sharing any personal identifying information, such your middle name, date of birth, home address, etc., should absolutely be avoided. This information is the key to your identity, so by posting it, you’re just leaving yourself open to identity thieves.

Watch out for unintentional oversharing

In addition to actively oversharing details of their lives, some users also have privacy and security settings that aren’t doing them any favors. Here’s what you should review to make sure your accounts aren’t exposing more information than they should.

1. Know the visibility settings of your accounts. Do you know who can see or access your posts and photos? Every time a service’s privacy settings change, you should make sure to review those changes to confirm you’re not sharing with whomever you don’t wish to share with. If you’re not sure what’s considered a “safe” setting, opt to only share with “friends” or keep your profile “private,” as it never hurts to have too much online privacy.

2. Know your friends. If you have a lot of strangers and casual acquaintances from high school on your social media friends lists, you should do some cleaning. Not only do these relationships (arguably) provide you with no value, but they also increase your attack surface. If these accounts become compromised or are exposed to a tool like the one at the center of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, your account could be affected. Also, it’s probably best you avoid sharing details of your life with individuals who are not or no longer are close to you.

3. Know what apps are connected to your accounts and devices. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the general public became aware of the importance of application permissions. Go through your social media accounts to see what quizzes, games and programs are connected to your accounts as well as what information they have access to. You should also do the same for your devices. Need more help? We explain exactly what to look for in our cybersecurity tune-up post.

4. Know what (meta)data your activity creates and how it can be used. We’re now living in an era of mass data collection. It’s an era where everyone from active data harvesters to causal onlookers can glean a lot of details about us by passively observing our online activity. With that in mind, it’s important to know exactly what kind of metadata your activity generates and how it can be used to make inferences about you. This is something we’ve talked about before, from insurance companies looking at your social media profile to wearable and IoT devices being used in criminal investigations, to the data embedded into your activity by default. You should use this knowledge to regulate your behavior online appropriately.

For more advice about using the Internet safely, keep reading our privacy blog.