Social media use can have unexpected, and sometimes harmful, effects on you and others. Learn more about these risks and how to avoid them.

Safe Use of Social Media

Learn more about the potential risks of social media use and how to avoid them

Understanding Social Media’s Risks and Benefits

The impact of social media on our everyday lives is immense; something unimaginable even just 10 years ago. But the benefits of near-instantaneous communication and the potential for positive social change inherent to social media come with a dark side.


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Industry research has found that 77% of employees admitted to using social-media while on the clock.With 3.2 billion social users worldwide, it’s a great way to stay connected to our personal and professional networks. It makes us feel a part of what’s happening.

Social media has become such an influence that 73% of marketers believe social marketing is effective for their business; 54% of social browsers use social media to research products; and 71% of consumers who’ve had a positive brand experience through social will likely recommend that brand to family and friends. Clearly social media has a big impact on modern businesses.

Except for those working in public relations or certain marketing roles, though, using social media isn’t typically a part of people’s job responsibilities. Despite this, industry research has found that 77% of employees admitted to using social-media while on the clock.

While individuals own their social media accounts, use of social media can have unexpected, and sometimes harmful, effects on others, including their employers.

Understanding these risks will empower everyone to use social media in a way that’s safe for users, their coworkers, and their companies.

How Can Social Media Use Be Harmful?

The very nature of using social media is to have your activity tracked. Not only by someone’s contacts and followers, but by the social platforms themselves and even trolls or hackers doing research for social engineering attacks.

Because of this, there can be diverse impacts from sharing the wrong thing online. Here are a few examples:

Reputational Hits

All employees have a role in preserving their employers’ reputation. That’s especially true for anyone who acts as a public representative of a company. Public actions those employees take, either online or in-person, will be seen and can greatly affect the organization’s reputation.

But actions taken by other employees may also be seen. Be careful about the possible PR backlash from anything you might post.

Data Leaks

Leaking sensitive information is another risk. Of course, deliberate leaks are wrong and possibly even criminal. But often things that are innocently posted on social media reveal company information that should be kept private.

For example, talking about a particular project’s details, providing information about teammates, highlighting recent accomplishments, sharing location data, posting photos from team events or travel to different locations – any of these could unintentionally reveal bits of information that, when combined, can put the company at risk.

Unintended Data Sharing

Social media sites are not free! As the saying goes, if you’re not paying, you are the product.

Everyone using social media “pays” for the service with their data, which could compromise company information. Social media accesses data in ways that aren’t always evident. It’s important to be aware of possible intrusions so as not to unwittingly compromise anything sensitive.

Perceived Discrimination or Harassment

Employees do not have the right to absolute freedom of expression about their employer organization. The workplace needs to be a safe and healthy place for all employees, and the same anti-harassment and discrimination laws that apply in person also apply online.

Avoid posting anything that is culturally insensitive or could be offensive. Besides, dissing your employer online makes you look bad. You work there, right?

Harm to Personal Careers

Inappropriate social media posting can also have detrimental career impacts. CareerBuilder’s 2018 research study found that 70% of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates. Of those already doing so, 57% found content that caused them not to hire candidates.

Twenty-five percent said they did not hire job candidates who bad-mouthed their previous employer or a fellow employee online; and 20% cited a job candidate sharing confidential information from a previous employer online as their do-not-hire criterion.

Put simply, the wrong post could cost you your job or keep you from getting a new one.

Risks to Home Life

Beyond risks to the work environment, social media information sharing can also impact our personal lives.

The more information anyone shares about themselves, the more it can become fodder for identity theft. Posting photos from the awesome vacation you’re taking while you’re still traveling lets everyone know you’re not home, making your house vulnerable. Viral links and videos can take you to dangerous sites or download malware onto your device. And there’s always the risk of reputational damage that can come from sharing inappropriate or offensive content.

Social media can pose special risks to children, who are too young and inexperienced to understand the dangers. Cyberbullying can cause social and psychological harm. Bad actors may “game” children to build online relationships that lead to in-person encounters. Revealing children’s personal information like name, address, and especially photos provides data for identity theft or even real-world stalkers.

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How Can Social Media Threaten Sensitive Information?

Social media is just that – social. It’s designed to draw out personal details about people’s lives. But there’s a line between what’s OK to share and what may expose company sensitive information. Let’s look at some examples:

Revealing Intellectual Property (IP)

Proprietary information like intellectual property or trade secrets is the backbone of an organization. Sharing it socially could harm competitive advantage.

It’s OK for someone to talk about their field in general, but it’s not OK to post organization-specific information or criticisms.

Amplifying Conflict

Trolling or arguing online with competitors, or with customers who publish complaints about a company, will amplify anything negative that’s already been said. You never know when a seemingly minor conflict could become a Twitter trend or a meme.

Words typed in anger or haste could also result in sensitive information being divulged. It will only damage the employer’s – and possibly the individual’s – reputation.

Oversharing Proprietary Accomplishments

An individual sales rep’s stellar performance may boost profitability. An engineer’s pioneering technical breakthrough may rock the market. But sharing such material information that could influence the share price of a publicly-traded company isn’t just bad policy … it’s illegal.

Everyone is proud of good work and accomplishments. But you should never disclose information about the inner workings of the business to outsiders.

Divulging Information about Others

Sharing other people’s personal data – customers, suppliers and co-workers – should never happen. Don’t disclose personal data to unauthorized individuals on social media, or anywhere. That includes communication with other employees who don’t have a legitimate need to know.

Also, cyber criminals regularly visit social media to gather information about people they’re targeting for spear phishing. That includes combing the posts of a target’s contacts. Think about what you may be revealing about others before you post.

Social Medial Credential Logins: Good or Bad?

We get it. Keeping track of a multitude of passwords is a pain.

Many people opt to use another app, like Facebook or their Apple ID, to sign into an unrelated site. That way they only need to remember one or two passwords. Sure it’s convenient, but it can also expose their full social media profile to the app or site they’re logging into.

A social profile doesn’t just include things like name, birthday, and contact list. It’s also a record of things like browsing history, “likes,” or daily web habits. That’s often data a third-party app shouldn’t have access to.

Also, just because a social sign-in capability is plugged into a third party’s site, it doesn’t guarantee that party’s credibility. Users should never connect their social media accounts to websites or apps containing sensitive personal details, such as national ID number or financial information.

It’s been said that “data is the new oil” – it’s high value! Often, companies who collect personal data sell it to other organizations wanting to profile users for advertising purposes.  But once it travels, you really don’t know how it will be used or secured.

Data shared on social media has value that many people may not realize. It’s important to use a strong, unique password for every account you access, including each of the social media tools you may use.

How Can a Company’s Social Media Policy Help?

While everyone’s social media accounts are their own, the line between personal and professional information and habits is blurring.

We often use our personal devices for work tasks and communications, and we sometimes conduct personal business from our employer-provided technology. It’s important to always be accountable for social media use and behavior as an individual and as a member of whatever organization is employing you.

Many companies today issue social media guidelines for their employees, whether on the job or on their own time. That includes some big names like Coca-Cola and Best Buy, but also much smaller firms, too.

Some companies block access to social media from the workplace altogether. That can seem overly-restrictive or invasive to some, but prudent to others. Thoughtful guidelines about appropriate online behavior will help everyone in an organization understand their responsibilities, be more careful, and protect both their own and their employer’s reputation.

While most everyone wants to engage in some form of social media, it’s important to know the risks. Knowledge gained at work about secure social media use can and should be applied at home too. You and everyone in your family will benefit from observing safe social behavior.

Keeping Your Home and Family Safe

All these social media practices at work can also be applied at home.

A bit of thought and caution will go a long way to protecting you and your family when engaging online. Here are some tips for keeping personal social media use secure:

  • Protect passwords; make them long and hard to guess; change them regularly; and don’t share them with anyone else.
  • Don’t “friend” people you don’t know or click links or download files from unknown or unverified sources.
  • Limit what personal information you share, and don’t tag others without their consent.
  • Work to be polite. Treating other social users respectfully will help deter people from attacking or criticizing you.

Whether in the workplace or at home, using common sense, staying aware and stopping to think before you click, post or share will go a long way to keeping you, your family, your co-workers and your employer safe online.

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Learn more about our Responsible Use of Social Media course, which defines the business and security risks of social networking and provides best practice guidance through interactivity and realistic examples.

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