Amelia Vreeland discovered forest school when her son was a toddler. She loved the idea of an outdoor program near her Orlando, Fla., home where he could spend time in nature and she could socialize with other parents.
Soon she became one of the school’s volunteer facilitators and connected on Facebook with the director, other facilitators, and some of the parents. Then, one day, she shared a darkly sardonic political meme on her timeline — and her new friends didn’t get the joke.
“They ended up saying I couldn’t be a facilitator anymore,” recalls Vreeland, 30. “All the friends I’d made over the previous six months distanced themselves from me.”
Vreeland’s social circle was quickly narrowed, and she no longer felt comfortable bringing her son to an enriching activity that had consumed half his waking hours. “I assumed anyone who has met me knows I’m well-intentioned,” she says. “I had never had my sense of humor affect me socially, so I didn’t know it could be so bad.”
Vreeland is hardly the first Facebook user to wonder why she’s been shunned by suddenly indignant “friends.” We tend to view social media as powerful tools for connection, socialization, and education — and they can be.
Increasingly, we also define our values and beliefs via our posts, both for ourselves and our virtual audience. We make our lives legible by documenting and preserving them.
But Vreeland’s experience illustrates the importance of carefully considering your audience, as well as other factors, before posting content. Oversharing on social media — sending something too private or provocative into the public arena — can undermine its benefits.
This may be especially true for digital nonnatives. Less accustomed to maintaining a virtual life than their millennial and Generation Z counterparts, they’re also more likely to share false or misleading information, according to a study from Princeton University and New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab.
Given how quickly these platforms evolved, it can be difficult to draw the line between what’s appropriate content and what is best kept private.
Experts suggest thinking twice before posting in these three situations.
1. It’s too personal.
Your best friend has just told you that she’s engaged, and you’re thrilled for her and her new betrothed. Think before you share a picture of the happy couple with “#engaged.” It’s not your story to tell — and your friends should be able to decide for themselves how and when to share that milestone moment.
This is true of other circumstances, too. “If someone is expecting a baby or they got a new job, don’t post about that, because they might not have told everyone they want to tell,” warns Stanford University social psychologist Erin Vogel, PhD.
Follow the lead of your friends and family when considering whether to share photos and information about their lives. When posting pics, gauge their comfort level and ask them if they’d like to vet images first. Assume you need to check with them unless they say it’s fine to post away.
Be especially careful when sharing information about children. Even though your sister approved of posting one cute picture of her toddler, she may not want you to share snaps of the same child a couple of years later.
Parents are growing more conscious of the lifespan of social-media content and how seemingly innocent posts can haunt people years later.
We have trouble conceptualizing the breadth of our social-media network, says media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, PhD. It’s usually a mix of childhood pals, family, work friends, and random acquaintances you haven’t talked to in years.
Imagine telling all those people in person about your husband’s smelly socks or your neighbor’s nosy coworker. What was a simple, funny story can quickly take an unfortunate turn. “Do that on the phone with a friend,” Rutledge advises. “Don’t do that permanently, in print, where it’s searchable.”
You likely know that you should never share information about your bank accounts, Social Security number, or credit cards on social media. Also be mindful of survey-style quizzes that ask questions about the name of your first pet or the street where you grew up: They may be designed to obtain the answers to your security questions.
Don’t post photos that might inadvertently disclose your home address, or a snap of your kid’s smiling mug with the school’s name in the background. And consider saving those vacation pics for after you return, so nobody knows exactly when your house is unattended.
2. You haven’t vetted the content.
Nearly half of Americans rely on Facebook for news, despite its well-documented proliferation of misinformation. The platform has only recently begun flagging false or misleading headlines and still doesn’t fact-check political advertisements or statements made by politicians. This means the onus is on users to separate fact from fiction by evaluating the credibility and motives of the publisher.
Check the domain name, the professionalism of the content (is it rife with spelling or grammatical errors?), the author, and other credibility signifiers. When in doubt, Google some keywords and “Snopes” or “fake news” to see if it’s been debunked.
“A lot of fake news is very convincing, and it plays into our emotions, which can cloud our judgment,” Vogel says. “Once we feel strongly about something, we may not think to fact-check the information before sharing it.”
When an article or video triggers outrage, fear, or schadenfreude, ask yourself why you’re choosing to share it. Propaganda purveyors often seek to harness those human emotions to spread misinformation.
The advent of deep-fake videos — which manipulate clips to show public figures saying or doing something they didn’t — means you can’t always trust what you see online. And unfortunately, the more often we see fake news, the more likely we are to believe it, even if we see it corrected after the fact.
We also tend to pay more attention to content that reinforces our beliefs, a principle known as confirmation bias. “You notice the things you agree with,” Rutledge explains. “You share them because you’re reassuring yourself that your way is the right way.”
The psychological principle of affinity makes us more likely to trust friends and family than a stranger.
“We are primed to believe what we see from our friends,” says Larry Rosen, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. All you need is one person to post one of these things and it starts spreading through your friend network, he warns.
3. It’s likely to alienate your audience.
Tapping on your phone in the privacy of your bedroom may seem intimate, but social networks are incredibly public spaces. It’s a basic rule of online etiquette to refrain from sharing cruel or offensive content.
Be aware that the ease and omnipresence of social media may trick your impulse control. “You feel safe behind a screen,” Rosen explains.
To minimize errors in judgment, he recommends an “e-waiting period” of 15 or 20 minutes for posts that may be controversial. “Ask yourself: ‘Is this the way I want to portray myself?’”
Consider, too, what you hope to achieve by sharing that blog post or political meme. Is it reliable, useful information that your audience will benefit from seeing — or is it simply contributing to a stream of divisive, inflammatory online vitriol?
Positive posts are the norm on social media, Vogel says, whether it’s your vacation pictures or feeling “#blessed” for your husband on your anniversary. Avoid violating this norm by “vague-booking” with negative statements like “disappointed again” or “is it even worth it,” which hint at a problem without offering specifics — often interpreted as attention seeking.
But if you’re going through a tough time, you can also draw support from friends on social media. “It tends to be more effective when people don’t post negative things that often, and when it has a spirit of honest self-disclosure,” Vogel says.
For example, try saying, “‘I’d appreciate your support; here’s what you can do to help,’ rather than just posting something negative.”
Always consider whether what you’re about to share online is something you’d be comfortable communicating face to face — and when in doubt, remember that you can choose to keep it to yourself.