Every time I’m on Facebook – which sadly constitutes a major chunk of my free time – I always come across something that never fails to amaze me: How little some people consider privacy and safety issues on these social networking sites. Is it any wonder why the Facebook stalking phenomenon is so prevalent? Some people leave much too sensitive information out for anybody with an account to see. Just doing a quick experiment, I was able to come up with personal phone numbers of complete strangers, their addresses, instant message screen names… even their work and class schedules. The bigger this social networking fad gets, the more people will need to step up from their ignorance and actively protect themselves.

It is true the Web sites themselves have somewhat of a responsibility to tell you about privacy and security features. Ultimately, however, the end user needs to make sure their info isn’t floating around out there on the net. With the inclusion of the news feeds and the opening of the site to the general public, Facebook made it a white Christmas for the stalker types. Hopefully, I can help prevent certain unfortunate events with the following tips.

The most important thing about protecting yourself on these online social networks is to limit who sees your profile. This basically means that people who are not already your friends should not be able to see your profile. This leads to another step towards protecting yourself: Try and limit yourself from adding just anyone to your friends list. Actually knowing the person who you are adding as a friend can greatly protect you.

Since the point of having a Facebook profile is to keep your friends up-to-date, some of you will have detailed contact and address information. It’s easy for me to say not to put this kind of information up, but of course that wouldn’t be reasonable. Beyond limiting who you add to your friends list, you can also choose to show a “limited profile” to certain friends. Furthermore, Facebook actually provides many more ways to limit and protect your profiles. All of these options can be found under the “privacy” section in the top navigation.

On a different note, having certain kinds of information on your profile might also get you into trouble – especially as a student. I remember my freshman year, some under-aged girl was disciplined for posting pictures of herself drinking in the dorms. I don’t exactly know what happened to her, but the example goes to show online social networks are a relatively new platform, and the University does not know how to treat their students on it. In my opinion, I don’t think information found on your Facebook profile should be used as evidence. Does having a picture of me holding a red cup necessarily mean I was drinking alcohol? Probably. In fact – most likely. But not definitely. Another reason to be aware of who can look at your profiles.

While incredibly powerful, the Internet is still very new to our society. Just because the medium is new, we cannot ignore the fact there are many issues. In the case of online social networks, people post a lot of sensitive information. While that alone can raise issues of privacy and safety, leaving it open for anyone to see can be a far bigger problem. People can complain all they want about the lack of certain privacy and security issues, but the fact remains, social networking sites are a free service people choose to use. This puts most of the responsibility on the users themselves. So, please everyone, just be aware of how private and secure your information is on your profiles.