Social media are increasingly blurring the lines between our personal and professional lives, leaving us at risk of posting sensitive information that could have ramifications far beyond our “friends” list.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin recently found this out the hard way after a video of her dancing and drinking with friends, first posted to a private Instagram account, was leaked to the press. Marin was forced to apologise, and even volunteered for a drug test, after enduring a worldwide media storm.
Other kinds of oversharing can have consequences, too. In 2020, police in Australia shared photos of arrested ex-footballer Dani Laidley in a private WhatsApp group, and the photos were then made public. Thirteen officers were suspended or transferred, with some facing charges for privacy and human rights breaches.
Many employers are introducing policies to reduce this kind of risk. Our research shows what drives much online oversharing – and we can offer some tips to keep yourself clear of social media scandal.
The personal and professional risks of oversharing
People have different preferences for boundaries between their professional and personal lives. Some prefer to keep their work relationships formal, while others treat colleagues as friends.
However, even if we choose to maintain strong boundaries between our professional and personal lives, we may still find details of our lives divulged on social media by others.
'I am a human … But I have not missed a single day of work, a single task, and I never will' — Finnish PM Sanna Marin continued to defend herself from the fallout of several leaked videos showing her drinking and partying with personal friends pic.twitter.com/sA82YnpNxJ
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) August 25, 2022
Research has reported more than half of us feel anxious about family, friends and colleagues sharing information, photos or videos we do not want to be shared publicly. Yet many of us also reveal an inappropriate amount of detail about our own lives (“oversharing”) on social media, and regret it later.
Beyond the potential for embarrassment, indiscriminate sharing on social media can have significant negative consequences for your professional life. Many employers actively use social media to research job candidates, while some employees have lost their jobs due to social media posts.
Emotions drive oversharing
Why are so many of us prone to oversharing? Our research suggests emotions are central.
When we feel strong emotions, we often use social media to communicate with and get support from friends, family and colleagues. We might share good news when we feel happy or excited, or anger and frustration might drive us to vent about our employers.
When emotional, it is easy for us to cross the boundary between work and social life, underestimating the consequences of social media posts that can quickly go viral.
We have five simple tips for people to avoid oversharing and creating a social media scandal for themselves or others.
1. Set clear boundaries between personal life and work
Be clear about the boundaries between your social life and work. Set rules, limits and acceptable behaviours to protect these boundaries.
Let your friends, colleagues and family know your expectations. If someone oversteps your boundaries, raise your concerns. Consider your relationship with individuals who do not respect your boundaries.
You can also establish boundaries by maintaining separate professional and social accounts on different social media platforms, and only sharing things relevant to work on your professional account.
2. Respect the boundaries of others
Be aware of and respect the boundaries of others. Don’t share photos or videos of others without their permission.
If someone doesn’t want their photo to be taken, video to be recorded or their name to be tagged, respect their wishes. Treat others on social media the same way you would like to be treated.
3. Lock down your social media accounts
Adjust your privacy settings to control who can view your profile and posts.
Most social media platforms provide features to help users protect their privacy online. Facebook’s “Privacy Checkup tool”, for example, lets you see what you’re sharing and with whom.
— Mashable (@mashable) January 6, 2020
Also consider what information you place in your profile. If you don’t want your personal social media profile associated with your employer, do not list your employer in your profile.
4. Share consciously to avoid mistakes
Do not use social media when you feel emotional. Especially if you are feeling strong emotions like hurt, anger or excitement, give yourself time to process your feelings before posting.
Ask yourself: How many people will see this post? Would anyone be hurt? Does anyone benefit? Would I feel comfortable if my colleagues or supervisors saw this?
Assume what you share can be seen by your friends, enemies, colleagues, boss and another 5,000 people. Stop if you don’t want any of them to see what you’re thinking about posting.
5. If you do overshare, try to remove unwanted content
Oversharing and accidental posting are not uncommon. If you have posted unwanted content, remove it immediately.
If you are concerned about information about yourself on someone else’s social media, raise your concerns and ask the person who posted to remove it.
If the information has spread through multiple sources, it is a bit tricky, but it is worth trying to contact the website or service that hosts the information or image to remove the content.
If you need further assistance with removing online content, you can also try a content removal service.
Posting is forever
Be aware that nothing shared over social media is private. Even “private” messages can easily be forwarded, screenshotted, posted and shared elsewhere.
You should treat social media content like your personal brand. If you wouldn’t say it to your colleagues and managers, don’t post it online.
Social media can enrich our professional and personal lives, but ill-considered posts and oversharing can be damaging to yourself and others. Being smart on social media is something we need to get better at in our professional lives, just as much as our personal lives.
- Van-Hau Trieu, Senior Lecturer in Information Systems, Deakin University and Vanessa Cooper, Professor, Information Systems, RMIT University