social media privacy habitsLast week, we wrote about the social media password habits of adults of all ages, using the results from a survey we recently conducted of 504 adults ages 18 and older. As a follow up, this week we’ve got our analysis of the rest of those survey results, specifically questions revolving around social media privacy. The very nature of social media lends itself to public use, but as more and more people of all ages use it as a means of communication and connection, the utilization and understanding of privacy settings are more important than ever.

Does the average person allow their location to be used alongside their posts? How many people have ever Googled themselves to see what information pops up? We divided our survey respondents into two groups, those ages 40 and under and those 41 and older, and compared and analyzed their answers to these questions and more. Here’s what we found out — and what you can learn from it.

How private are people’s social media posts?

In the early days of social media, most people’s profiles and posts were — by default — public and easily searchable. Since then, privacy settings have improved and the average user, no matter their age, has learned how to be a little more careful about what they post and who can see it. Of course, it’s important to remember that even if your Facebook posts or Tweets are all set to friends only, if you aren’t judicious when it comes to who you add as a friend or allow to follow you, strangers may still see what you post.

When asked, 56% of all respondents said they sometimes post publicly on social media (59% of those under 40 and 54% of those 41 and older). The majority of both age groups who said that they post publicly admitted to doing it occasionally, while just a small percentage said they do it at least half the time or make all their posts public. In order to make your posts private or semi-private, of course, you need to know how to access your privacy settings in the first place. Almost all of our under 40 group (92%) said they know how to check their privacy settings and do so at least once a year, compared to just under three-quarters (72%) of the group of 41 and older. Seventeen percent of respondents 41 or older said they did not know how to check their privacy settings, compared to just 6% of their younger counterparts. An additional 11% of those 41 or older said they were unsure if they could change the privacy settings on social media, compared to 2% of the younger set.

What you can learn from this: Although they all differ from one another somewhat, the majority of social media sites and apps these days feature privacy settings that let their users control who can see what they post. Facebook arguably offers the most diverse privacy options, which you can acquaint yourself with using its Privacy Checkup feature, but others such as Snapchat, Instagram, Google+ and Twitter have their own settings available. Some may be limited or not useful to you, but knowing what they are will enable you to utilize them if the need arises. It’s also important to check your privacy settings on a regular basis, in the same way you should change your passwords regularly, because there’s always a chance a social media site will change how it functions without you realizing it. Staying ahead of those kinds of changes by ensuring you know what settings are applied to your apps and posts is the best way to maintain social media privacy.

Does the average person allow their location to show?

Thanks to GPS, most social media apps allow you to indicate your location when you make a post, from tagging your location on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to using geotag filters when you send a Snap. When we asked whether they allow their location to be displayed on their social media posts, 55% of our respondents in total said they never allow it, 33% said they only allow it on private posts, 6% said they always allow it and 6% said they didn’t know it was optional. Between the two age demographics, more younger people were apt to allow locations in some of their posts — 39% on private posts and 9% on all posts — while older people were less likely to do so — 29% private, 4% on all.

What you can learn from this: Allowing your social media apps to display your location is a rather obvious privacy risk, as it gives anyone with access the ability to know exactly where you are (or the places you frequent). Geolocation is a topic we’ve written about before, because it is something that has become ingrained into so many apps. Considering a vast majority of people access social media from smartphones — you may find yourself showing off your location without even realizing it. It’s important to, again, review the settings of any app you use and make sure you’ve turned off or disabled features you don’t want to use, such as location. Another point to consider is that location data can also be stored in the media you share — turning off location features on Snapchat does no good if you haven’t disabled your phone’s camera setting which embeds exact location data into the photos you take.

Younger people are more apt to let third-party apps connect

As social media has ingrained itself into the lives of the majority of connected citizens of the world, other websites and services have scrambled to keep up. One of the ways many have done this is to allow people to connect or log in to their site or app through their social media account. Facebook is a leader when it comes to this, but people can also connect their Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts to third-party apps. This can be convenient, but it also presents potential privacy risks, as well as security risks — Gmail users learned this firsthand recently when a convincing fraudulent Google Docs app was created and emailed to unsuspecting people. The only way to protect their accounts in this case was to remove the offending app from their account’s list of trusted apps.

When we asked our survey respondents about third-party apps, the results were about as expected: more younger people said they allow these connections, while more older people said they did not. The exact numbers broke down to a near-even split for those under 40, with 44% saying they allow third-party apps to connect (but are careful when doing so) and 43% saying they don’t, and the remaining 13% saying they let most connect. On the other hand, those 41 and older overwhelmingly said they do not allow these kinds of connections — 74% — compared to 22% allowing apps they trust to connect and just 4% allowing most connections.

What you can learn from this: As the recent Google Docs phishing attack showed, these types of connections can be dangerous. They can also be convenient, especially when you don’t want to create yet another account you have to remember a password for. That said, it’s important to be careful when making these connections. You might think there’s no harm in letting the app for a funny quiz on Facebook connect to your account, but you might find yourself biting off more than you can chew in doing so. Scammers and hackers abound on social media. Part of going through your social media privacy settings should include looking at which apps are connected or logged into your accounts, what kind of information they can access and deciding which ones should be revoked access.

To Google yourself or not to Google yourself

Have you ever searched for yourself on Google or another search engine? If not, you aren’t alone. Just over half (51%) of our survey respondents overall reported having never done so, which broke down to 37% of those under 40 and 58% of those 41 and older. Of the other 49% of all respondents who have searched for themselves, 37% said they discovered that their online life is pretty private, while 12% learned that they have public social media profiles.

What you can learn from this: No matter how old you are or how private you think your social media profiles are, it’s never a bad idea to search for yourself. You never know what will turn up, or how it could affect your reputation at work or otherwise. Test your privacy settings and catch any old profiles, photos or posts that might be lurking out there by searching for yourself on a regular basis. Don’t just search for your name, either! Try Googling usernames and email addresses, too, as those can also lead to information you didn’t realize was easily discovered. Beyond embarrassing photos or posts written by a younger, more naive version of yourself, information that could expose you to identity thieves and other scammers could be out there.

Maintaining your social media privacy can seem like a full-time job, but you can make it easy and simple by following a few key habits. To learn more about the topics covered in this post and others, keep an eye on our privacy blog.