Every good relationship needs boundaries- those invisible lines that we set up to protect ourselves and those we care about. We teach children that they may play in the yard but not the street, because that's a dangerous place to be. When we get a little older, we learn never to give our bank PIN number to anyone.
And as our relationships with friends mature, we learn social cues that let us know how much information is appropriate to share and when we've given too much.
A few years ago I found myself in an awkward situation when a friend wanted to share details of her private sex life. My facial expression obviously said more than my words, because she suddenly realised she was oversharing and apologised. Now our relationship remains strong, due in part because we both know the boundaries for good communication and avoid sharing information that makes the other person uncomfortable.
A few years ago, I moved many thousands of miles away from where I grew up, and I discovered social networking sites. However, while staying in touch is easy thanks to Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, establishing boundaries for such online friendships is also very important, because there are certain dangers.
It's so easy to share anything and everything online. The Internet encourages you to share yourself with a virtual room of strangers, which is far easier to do than when you are in a real room of people with whom you are acquainted.
This is partly due to the fact that social cues are limited online. Sitting in front of a computer monitor, you can't see how people are reacting to what you share unless they tell you how they are reacting. You cannot judge facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. While it may feel liberating to say exactly what you feel, it's important to understand that there are real people in the virtual world of the Internet and real world consequences to what you say.
We sometimes hear in the news of people who were fired from jobs, lost friends or family, or were denied university entry due to what they'd posted on their social networking sites. There is no way back from telling the world that your boss doesn't know what he or she is doing. Carelessly meeting cyber friends in the real world can lead to some scary situations. And universities and future employers do use the Internet to check out who they're admitting into their environment.
There are definite ways to keep you and your family safe while still enjoying an online experience. Let me share a few tips I've picked up.
Don't share financial information. This might sound obvious, but it's surprising how often people forget. Don't share credit card details, how much you earn or where you do your banking. It is very easy for someone to create a profile of you that they can then use to steal your identity and money or to take out a loan in your name.
Only share personal information that you would share with a stranger on the street. Anytime you update your Twitter account, the information you've just shared is stored online forever. Anyone can find it using a search engine. While you may not mind Aunt Rita knowing about the changes your pregnant body is going through, you might feel a bit uncomfortable telling Bob down the street about it.
Assume that everything you say online is permanent. Even if you can delete something, it doesn't mean that someone hasn't already made a copy. Words, photos and videos can all be used again.
Be positive. Don't bad-mouth your job, your boss or your friends. If you need to vent about something, phone a friend. The more negative you are with your updates, the more you risk getting into trouble. And the benefits of being positive go beyond simply keeping yourself out of trouble. If you are constantly encouraging yourself to view life in a positive light, you will find yourself much more content with life, even if nothing in your life actually changes.
We all receive requests to join someone's social networking site as a friend. This doesn't mean you have to accept the invitation. If you don't feel confident sharing the online parts of your life with someone, don't add them as friends. There's no rule that says you have to be "friends" with everyone. It can be particularly dangerous to share your profile with strangers, as you have no idea who is actually on the other side of their profile.
There's also no rule that says you have to keep people as "friends" if they prove to be abusive. If you are receiving rude comments or demeaning messages, send them a message explaining that you expect to be treated a certain way. If your request is not met, delete them from your friends list. Your online experience should be pleasant, not a battlefield. It is up to you to make it the way you want it to be. So choose your online friends carefully.
In any social networking site, you will find privacy controls under "Settings." This allows you to determine who can see what information about you. Learn to use these settings to protect yourself. For instance, Facebook allows you to set your profile to private, which means that no-one but people who are already your friends can see such information as your date of birth, where you work or even your favourite movies. Knowing who has access to what information can help you control the information about you that is freely available.
Also, be very cautious about meeting cyber friends in the real world. In today's world, people often form genuine friendships online, and that's perfectly OK. It's bit like the pen pals of days gone by. However, just because there is nothing wrong with making such friends doesn't mean you should treat it in a casual, undiscriminating fashion. If you make an appointment to meet someone you've never met before, take a trusted friend or two with you and meet in a public place. Don't go anywhere alone with your online friend until you've established that he or she is entirely trustworthy. If you begin to feel uncomfortable, leave the situation immediately. Go with your instincts.
Choose carefully the pictures you post. These are some of the easiest things to leak to the world. No matter what your privacy setting, they can be copied, altered and redistributed. A good rule of thumb is not to put anything online that you would be ashamed to let your children see.
In short, remember to be a real person, even in the virtual world. Remembering rules for everyday life will help you maintain boundaries that will keep you safe and in good stead among work colleagues, friends and family.