Protect Yourself by Adjusting Your Facebook Privacy Settings

How (and Why!) to Control Who Sees Your Facebook Posts

There are many different ways to use Facebook depending on your individual needs. Companies can use it to contact their customers directly and personally. Individuals reach out to far-flung family and friends through Facebook or use it to find like-minded people to help them get through parenthood or health crises. Sweepstakes fans use Facebook to help them win more prizes.

The flexibility of Facebook's platform has a downside, too. Namely, you can put yourself at risk if you don't pay close attention to who can see your posts. People have been fired, denied admission to college, and sued for things they've unwisely posted on Facebook. Pedophiles have even misused pictures parents posted on Facebook.

As you can see, it's critical to pay attention to who can see your posts. Luckily, Facebook lets you choose among several different options to quickly select privacy levels for each post you make. Use those privacy options to determine which updates are meant for the whole world to see, and which you want to reserve for trusted people.

To set your privacy options, look for a drop-down box underneath your name when you make a new post. This opens Facebook's audience selector. Clicking on the arrow will let you select the privacy setting you need.

Here is a breakdown of each of Facebook's privacy options ordered from least to most restrictive.

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The "Public" Privacy Setting on Facebook

Collage of photographs
This privacy level makes your posts open to anyone who stumbles across them. John Lund / Getty Images

"Public" is Facebook's most open privacy level. Anyone can see these posts: your friends, total strangers, and everyone in between.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. If you are trying to get votes for a contest you entered or you want to receive extra entries into a giveaway when people enter through your unique link, making your posts open to everyone gives you a broader audience.

Some people also like to make some public posts so acquaintances who haven't friended them on Facebook yet can identify them.

When you post publicly, make sure you aren't posting anything that could embarrass you or anyone you care about, currently or in the future. If you wouldn't say something to your parents, your college admissions officer, or your employer, don't post it publicly.

Most importantly, don't post any information that could put you in danger. This includes your address and telephone number, check-ins that reveal your current location, and dates when you're going on vacation and your home will be empty. Personal photos and (especially) photos of your kids are also better posted with a different privacy setting.

Check out 10 Things You Should Never Post on Social Media for other important safety tips.

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The "Friends" Privacy Setting on Facebook

Portrait of enthusiastic business people in circle
This privacy policy will make your posts open only to your circle of friends. Caiaimage/Martin Barraud / Getty Images

When you use the "Friends" privacy setting, two groups of people can see your post:

  • People whom you have added as your friend.
  • Friends of anyone tagged in the post.

That means that if you post a picture of yourself and your sister and you tag your sister in the post, her friends can also see it.

You can turn off the "friends of people tagged in the post" option by unchecking the "Friends of those tagged" box in the audience selector.

If you want to post to all of your friends, make sure to keep a good eye on who is on that list. It's a good idea to regularly review who you have friended and remove anyone you don't trust.

When you use this privacy setting, it's still a good idea to be cautious about what you post. Even with a friends-only post, you can't be sure someone won't tell someone else what you shared.

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Facebook's "Custom" Privacy Setting

Couple taking self-portrait at music festival
This privacy level makes your post open only to specific friends or groups of friends that you set. Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Facebook's "custom" privacy setting lets you pick specific people or groups of people to share your posts with.

For example, you can set up friend lists to include people with specific interests or points of view. That way, you can make posts visible to your closest friends, people who live nearby, other sweepstakes fans, or any other group you want to make.

That way, you can make sure you only share your kids' pictures with your relatives or post about new giveaways to people who like to enter sweepstakes. You could set up a group of people who like to exchange contest votes or who share the same political leanings.

This setting gives you much more freedom to express yourself safely and without boring people who aren't interested in specific topics.

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The "Only Me" Privacy Setting on Facebook

Hispanic teenager drawing heart with lipstick
This privacy level lets you make posts just for yourself. JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

If you like talking to yourself, the "only me" privacy setting is for you. Just as it sounds, you are the only one who can see these posts.

Why would you want to post only to yourself? Well, you can use this setting with apps that post for you, ensuring they're not aggravating your friends with too many auto-generated posts. You can also post reminders for yourself and link to articles you want to read later.

If you have to post a link on Facebook to enter a giveaway and the sponsor doesn't need to verify the post, you can also use the "only me" setting.

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A Few Exceptions to Keep in Mind

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Privacy levels are important. Choose wisely. Seb Oliver / Getty Images

Keep in mind, there are ways to get around most privacy settings. For example, a friend could take a screenshot of your post and post it publicly or share it with someone you didn't expect to see it. Or your Facebook account could be hacked, and the hacker could see everything you posted, even the "only me" posts.

There are some things you should never post on social media, regardless of the security settings you choose. If something would deeply embarrass you if it got out, better to keep it offline.

Also, Facebook can share things that you post privately to law officials on demand. So things like pictures of underage drinking or other illegal activities should never be posted.

Facebook offers privacy levels as an easy way to control who has access to your information. But the best way to prevent sensitive information from public leaks is to avoid posting it on Facebook in the first place.