In the age of social media, it can be easy to forget your online actions have real-life consequences. From a potential employer looking at your LinkedIn profile or scrolling through your Instagram pics, your past social media posts can come back to haunt you in ways you might not expect.
But how dangerous are your old tweets, Instagram posts, Facebook statuses and other behavior on social media?
In this article, we’ll look at the risks of your social media past, pitfalls to avoid, and how to ensure your past posts don’t come back to bite you (and instead paint you in the best light possible).
The hidden dangers of your social media history
Some of the biggest social media platforms have been around for well over a decade – Facebook launched in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and Instagram in 2010 – which means these platforms are older than some Gen Zers!
For those who are a bit older, scrolling through your social media history can be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, serving as a time capsule of who you were at the time. But sometimes, you might find yourself wishing some of those old posts and pictures never existed, and here are two of the most common reasons why.
It can damage your reputation
There are so many different ways old social media posts can damage your reputation, and it’s one of the biggest risks of social media overall. From inappropriate posts and images, to angry rants about your former employers or coworkers, to bad jokes that weren’t funny at the time and aged even worse.
Having these types of skeletons in your social media history can not only impact your job prospects, but it can also affect your social life and your nearest and dearest. Social media has the power to get you fired, prevent you from getting hired in the first place, and even end personal relationships if not handled properly.
In the wise words of Benjamin Franklin: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it,” and that quote still holds true today, more than 200 years later.
It’s a security risk
Many people use social media to give their followers and friends a peek into their lives, and that’s completely normal. But the danger is that the information you share online could be used by hackers to steal your identity and passwords or set up fake accounts to impersonate you.
That’s why it’s important to be careful about what we share online because you don’t want bad actors like hackers or scammers to use that information against you.
For example, think about those security questions that are commonly used to confirm your identity. A few of the most popular security questions include:
- In what city were you born?
- What is the name of your first pet?
- What is your mother’s maiden name?
- What is the name of your elementary school?
- What is your favorite movie?
Now, ask yourself – how easily could someone glean that information from a quick look through your social media profiles, comment history, likes, and hashtags? If your answer makes you uncomfortable, consider enabling 2-factor authentication (2FA) on your online accounts that allow it and limiting what you share publicly.
Avoid the following social media pitfalls
If you don’t want your social media history coming back to bite you in the future, here are a few things to avoid.
Polarizing posts, bad jokes, and sarcasm
In today’s social climate, people are increasingly conscious of issues such as discrimination and politics. Posts that demonstrate insensitivity can be damaging because culture moves so fast that what might’ve been fine five or ten years ago might not fly today.
For example, let’s say you made a series of “jokes” on Twitter a few years ago. You might have thought they were funny at the time, but now they could be seen as offensive or unacceptable. If a potential employer were to come across these tweets, they might view you as someone who is not aligned with their values and decide not to hire you.
James Gunn, the film director best known for the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, learned this the hard way when he was fired from the Marvel series over problematic tweets from his past.
Also, keep in mind that sarcasm doesn’t always translate well, especially through text or if it’s removed from its original context within the vacuum of a screenshot.
Sharing too much information
We already talked about how sharing too much information online is a security risk, but there are other dangers to oversharing online as well.
Like it or not, your social media history paints a picture of who you are. That’s why if someone wants to learn more about you (such as a recruiter for that job you want), social media will be one of the first places they’ll look.
So if you only post pictures of your nights out, that can give the impression it’s all you do. Or what if you’re a die-hard Yankees fan, and they love the BoSox?
That’s not to say you shouldn’t share about the good times, your favorite teams, and other things you like. But you only have one chance to make a good first impression and if it’s based off of your social media activity, how confident are you that it paints you in a good light?
References to alcohol, partying, and more provocative things
This is related to the previous point on oversharing because even seemingly harmless posts from your past can give others a negative perspective of you, especially when it comes to things like alcohol and partying. While the occasional cocktail pic or celebratory glass of wine likely won’t raise any eyebrows, those old clubbing photos from college might.
In fact, 79% of employers have rejected a candidate based on inappropriate content on social media. Some of the most common reasons were hate speech, excessive partying, and illegal activities, although some candidates were also rejected for revealing confidential or proprietary information from their previous jobs.
For example, let’s say you used to post party pictures on Facebook, showing you drinking and having a good time. These posts might have been perfectly fine at the time, but if you’re looking for a job in a conservative or heavily regulated industry, a hiring manager might view your party pictures as evidence you’re not a serious candidate and pass on interviewing you.
Avoid negativity and hating for the sake of it
Social media is filled with hot takes and rants on pretty much any topic you can imagine, and while it may be tempting to fire off a post of your own when something upsets you, it’s often better to think twice.
On one hand, negative emotions like outrage and anger are prioritized by the algorithms because it’s highly engaging, but in real life, all that rage-baiting and negativity only serves
to bring the vibe down and drain emotional energy. And if all someone does is complain on social media, it’s a red flag that makes them look toxic and unsociable.
On the other hand, don’t go to the opposite extreme and say you can’t ever have negative emotions or feelings because forcing yourself to be positive no matter what can also be harmful (it’s called toxic positivity). Life has its ups and downs and if you portray that on social media, you’ll come off as a lot more authentic and relatable.
Should you delete your social media history?
Now that we’ve gone over the risks of your old social media posts and what to avoid, you might be wondering if social media is worth the trouble and if you should just delete your accounts altogether.
Deleting your accounts is the nuclear option, and we don’t recommend erasing all traces of your social media past because having no social media presence at all can come off as suspicious. Having zero social media is often a red flag in and of itself because it makes people wonder if you’ve got something to hide. So it’s better to have at least some presence on a few social media platforms, but by no means do you need to be on every single one.
A less drastic action is to delete old posts and tweets if they didn’t age well or you no longer feel comfortable with it being publicly available, although you should keep in mind that even if it’s deleted, it isn’t necessarily gone forever. So if you take that route, just be prepared in case those old, deleted posts ever resurface.
Social media tips to protect yourself and your reputation
Here are a few of our favorite tips to ensure that you never have to stress about the implications of your social media history ever again.
Consider the impression your social media activity gives off
You might want to give people a more well-rounded view of who you are, that shows you doing a variety of things that align with your hobbies and interests.
It doesn’t have to be all work, all the time because people do want to see the real you, so don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through.
And even if you’re not creating your own content, consider how everything you like or share also impacts how others perceive you. This even goes as far as liking individual comments because hitting that ‘Like’ button implies you agree with the sentiment.
If you’re unsure whether a piece of content is offensive or not, we recommend asking yourself if you’d be comfortable saying or sharing it at work (or with your parents), and if the answer is no, seriously reconsider whether it’s worth sharing or posting at all.
Use your privacy settings wisely
You can use your privacy settings to take proactive steps to control who can see your social media profiles and what you post on them.
For example, Facebook lets you choose who can see your posts from the past and who can see posts where you’re tagged. On Instagram, you can make your account private and only let close friends see your Stories.
Everyone has different comfort levels regarding their privacy, and it’s up to you to determine how private or public you want to be on social media.
Remember that the internet is forever
There’s a reason why people say the internet is forever because even if you delete something, it’s never truly gone. All it takes is an internet sleuth with the right motivation and expertise to unearth those deleted posts, as it’s often just a matter of finding the cache, archive, or screenshot.
Even messages sent in group chats and secure messaging apps like Signal can be screenshotted and shared, so a good rule of thumb for protecting yourself online is to never say or do anything online that you wouldn’t be comfortable with other people finding out.
Do periodic social media checks
It’s especially important to do an occasional social media audit if your account goes back more than fve to ten years so you can search for old posts that didn’t age well. Certain terms or phrases that were common at the time may have fallen out of use in the years since and even things like childhood nicknames amongst friends could come off as insensitive to outsiders.
Checking your social media history can be as easy as Googling your own name every once in a while. Additionally, you can use tools like Google Alerts to notify you whenever your name appears online, so you can keep an eye on what’s being said about you and take action if necessary.
Your past social media posts can be dangerous if they contain unprofessional content or even get taken out of context. These posts can damage your reputation and even cost you job opportunities, as many employers now routinely check the social media accounts of job applicants.
It’s essential to take proactive steps to protect your online reputation by managing your old posts and deleting anything damaging. Be sure to take advantage of tools that allow you to take control of your online reputation and present yourself in the best light to potential employers and others. Doing so can minimize the risks of social media and ensure that your past posts make you shine in the brightest light.
Bishop, B. (2018, July 20). Writer-director James Gunn fired form Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 over offensive tweets. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/20/17596452/guardians-of-the-galaxy-marvel-james-gunn-fired-pedophile-tweets-mike-cernovich.
Hess, A. J. (2018, August 23). Should you delete your social media history? 4 things to consider first. CNBC Make It. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/23/4-things-to-consider-before-you-delete-your-social-media-history.html.
Regan, J. (2020, May 21). Don’t let your old social media accounts come back to haunt you. AVG. https://www.avg.com/en/signal/dont-let-your-social-media-past-ruin-your-future.
Sipola, I. How social media can hurt your job search and future career. LifeHack. https://www.lifehack.org/902376/how-social-media-can-hurt-your-job-search.