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Facebook Privacy Rears Its Ugly Head... Again


I have written about Facebook privacy issues in the past, but it’s time to bring this subject to the attention of parents once again. Just a few weeks ago Facebook made news for updating its privacy policy and altering the way users can control what is being shared with others. If you have teens using this enormously popular social networking service, you would do well to spend a few minutes with them to discover what has changed.


Unfortunately, I can’t exactly tell you everything that is different, but I do know this... when I logged into my own account the other day (I’m lucky if I get on there once a month) I was met with a screen that asked me something about if I wanted to use Facebook’s recommended settings for their new privacy categories, or if I wanted to keep my old ones. I told it I wanted to keep things the way they were, but unless I can’t read properly, that’s not what happened. After logging in, I went into the new and “improved” privacy settings and discovered some gaping holes I needed to plug.


While I have little to share on my personal Facebook profile, my kids, their friends, and likely your kids, are different stories. Most teens think nothing of uploading literally hundreds, if not thousands, of photos. If you’re lucky, most of these will be the usual benign shots of friends hanging out at the mall, eating fast food and sticking French Fries up their noses. However, some photos reveal more personal aspects of a teen’s life. Chances are, many of these photos may now be open for the world to see, unless you manually change the privacy settings.


They may also be at risk of sharing other information and comments between “friends” with a much wider audience than they anticipated. For some of these areas of a user’s Facebook profile, you can control what gets shared. But the new changes have made it nearly impossible to control other information.


Let’s start with what you can change...


Log into your (or your teen’s) profile. Look for the link near the upper right side of the browser window that says “Settings”. If you hover your mouse over that link, a little drop down menu will appear. One of the items on that menu says “Privacy Settings”. Click on that, and you will be sent to the privacy area of the account you are logged into.


Within the context of this article, I cannot walk you through every setting, but you should pay close attention to each of the listed areas on the Privacy Settings page. The real trick is to help your kids (and perhaps yourself) recognize how the settings for most of the areas work. You are given a choice of sharing information with only your friends, friends of friends, or everyone. It’s that middle choice that gets many people in trouble.


While the “Everyone” setting obviously opens your information to the world, many people see “Friends-of Friends” as being more benign. That often isn’t the case. While you may think you know all the friends of your friends, you may want to do a little math first...


How many friends does your teen have on Facebook? Statistics posted on the site indicated the average user has 130 friends. My kids are each in the 300+ range, and from what I hear it’s not uncommon for many of their friends to have over 500 virtual connections.


Doing the calculation at the more conservative level of 130 friends, and if each of those friends have 130 friends, that creates a network of 16,900 people! If your teens are more aggressive at collecting Facebook friends, and have the same number as my kids -- about 300 -- and their friends had the same number, the “Friends of Friends” network would reach 90,000 “friends.”


Do you really know all these people?


Be very careful about selecting “Friends of Friends” for any Facebook settings. I only have my website information set to “Friends of Friends”, meaning that is the only piece of information I’m willing to have 90,000-plus people know about me (aside from my name and profile photo -- the latter being another concern I’ll address in a moment).


I also allow “Everyone” to be able to add me as a friend or to send me a message from the Facebook search results. However, if you are uncomfortable with anyone being able to send your child a “Friend” invitation, you can (and should) change this setting.


Here are a couple of other tricky loopholes where your information may be leaked. Go into the “Applications and Websites” settings. Click on the “Edit Settings” button on the “What Friends Can Share About You” line. Here you will see a list of the different aspects of your profile that will be shared by 3rd party Facebook applications. I can’t provide a long explanation as to what all this means, but the bottom line is your kids may authorize other “mini” programs within Facebook to have access to information within their profiles. Simply put, any information you didn’t want to share in your profile privacy settings should also be turned off here. Again, I am very conservative and have chosen to only share limited information with applications within Facebook.


Another big issue is the privacy settings on photos. Since Facebook made the changes a few weeks ago, I can now view the photo albums of many of my “Friends of Friends.” If you don’t want those bikini photos of last summer’s beach trip out in the wild, go to the Profile Information section of the Privacy Settings. Scroll down toward the bottom of the page and look for the Photo Albums setting. The button to control these says “Edit Settings.” After clicking on it, you’ll be led to another sub-menu where you can see settings for your profile pictures and each of your photo albums.


While many people will limit their photo albums to only friends (if you haven’t you should seriously consider doing so), they will unwittingly accept Facebook’s default setting of “Friends of Friends” for their profile pictures.


Personally, I have only one photo in my “Profile Pictures” photo album, and it’s the one the world will see if they search me on Facebook. However, some people have a habit of dumping dozens of pictures into the Profile Pictures album. If you accept Facebook’s default setting, all of these photos are visible to a vast audience. My recommendation is that you only keep one or a few photos in the profile album, and make sure they are ones you want the world to see. Keep those awkward beach shots, or any other photos that reveal private information about you or others, in albums that are limited to viewing by only your friends. (Remember, your main profile photo is always available for the world to see. The only way you can prevent this is to not have a profile photo at all.)


Finally, be aware of what you can no longer change. Here is a snippet from the site’s privacy policy:


Certain categories of information such as your name, profile photo, list of friends and pages you are a fan of, gender, geographic region, and networks you belong to are considered publicly available to everyone, including Facebook-enhanced applications, and therefore do not have privacy settings. You can, however, limit the ability of others to find this information through search using your search privacy settings.


How does this paragraph affect you? A common example involves Facebook networks and fan pages. In case you aren’t aware, there is a fan page or network for just about every interest and pastime you can think of. If you have chosen to join any of these on Facebook, you can no longer keep this a secret. Considering some of the names of these groups could reveal personal information about your interests and affiliations, you may want to seriously consider where you place your allegiances.


Other changes: You can no longer prevent all your Facebook activity from appearing on your profile’s wall. If you want to delete items, you must do so manually -- one at a time. Your friend list is also now considered public property... anyone can see who your friends are.


I have covered a lot here, but I must have you consider one final thing: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is god of this virtual world. With the strike of his mouse, he can (and will) make future changes. Don’t assume anything you put on Facebook (or any other social networking site) won’t be public information tomorrow. It’s his baby, and he owes you nothing to use this free service. Paraphrasing what I heard someone say, a wise user of this site wouldn’t write or post anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of USA Today.


If you don’t want your (or your teen’s) words of opinion or photos to be tomorrow’s news, you would be wise to pull them off of Facebook. Remember the ultimate “click” is under the “Settings” menu and “Account Settings.” Scroll to the bottom of the page and you’ll find “Deactivate Account.” Click on the “deactivate” link, and your complete profile will vanish... along with all your Facebook privacy problems.


Rod Gustafson



Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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