Women’s Guide to Cyber Safety 2021
Keep vigilant and follow our steps to remain safe, secure and protected online.
Having to deal with uncomfortable or reprehensible behavior in real life seems to (hopefully) be turning a corner with the rise of movements like #metoo, but the waters can be a bit murkier online.
The Women’s Guide to Cyber Safety 2019 is full of helpful tips on how to do just that. We’ve provided all the steps to ensure your safety, security and protection online.
Trust your gut
How you feel may be completely different to how another woman feels in a certain situation online. Trust your gut, follow your instincts and what you feel is right. Trusting your gut is often your best instinct in these situations.
This guide isn’t just about avoiding “toxic masculinity” online and how to deal with it, it’s also a guide to keeping your identity (and identifying details) private to avoid situations like fraud, blackmail, and stalking.
If you’re a woman, and you’re online – no matter how young or old you are – this guide is for you. It contains a wealth of detailed information to protect yourself online, while at the same time allowing you the freedom to be yourself in cyberspace.
We cover how to deal with harassment on social media, how to build a social media presence (or brand) safely, online dating, sexting, actionable steps to take if you are being sexually harassed, as well as some general tips regarding protecting your privacy online.
While we position this guide for women, the same rules apply if you are LGBTQ. There are some dangerous people out there of all orientations and sexual preferences – so read on to find out how you can protect yourself online.
1 Social media
What’s appropriate to share on social media?
What you share online is ultimately up to you. On social media, you can share things:
- publicly (the whole world can see)
- with friends/followers (to a specific audience)
- or privately (to an individual or group)
Before posting anything on any social media platform, think to yourself: “Would I want my parents/boss/future employer to see this?”
There are certain types of content that have the potential to be detrimental to you personally.
Sensitive material might be:
- Harmful to your career
- A hobby or personal details you don’t want made public
- Culturally inappropriate or insensitive (which may even limit future travel!)
Old tweets have come back to bite celebrities in the ass (see: Kevin Hart’s old homophobic tweets costing him the Oscars hosting spot, Rosanne’s racist tweets that got her fired from her own show). Just because you’re not a star doesn’t mean that one day someone might bring up something you posted on the internet a million years ago. Even if you decide to go back there and delete them yourself: assume once it’s out there, it’s there forever.
If it’s shared publicly, you need to be very careful before posting to ensure it doesn’t contain sensitive material.
If it’s shared with all your friends/followers, you can assume that one day it might be made public.
What is a bit murkier is posts you share privately. If it’s shared between you and certain people, for instance your bff? Well, you can assume it won’t be made public – unless of course, your best friend makes it public, or your data is accidentally/deliberately leaked. There’s also the opportunity for privately shared information to be used against you for blackmail, for instance in the case of a scorned ex-lover.
What this all adds up to is four degrees of filtering:
- The public
- Close friends/family/partners
What’s public and what’s private?
What’s public and what’s private on your social media account has a lot to do with the way that you set up your privacy settings on each platform.
By default, there may be plenty of information made public when you actually want them to remain private. Facebook’s default settings, for instance, change often, and there are many of them – so have a look at what’s current. Don’t assume your privacy settings will remain the same as they did last year – do regular check ups.
It’s recommended you have a read about privacy and security on every platform you use, and choose to do a privacy checkup if they have this functionality.
- Facebook’s Privacy Checkup
- Instagram’s Privacy Settings and Information
- Twitter’s Safety and Security Settings
- Snapchat’s Privacy Settings
- Reddit’s Privacy Settings
A word about commenting
When commenting on other people’s posts anywhere, this information is always public – along with your username. It is up to that person to control the audience of your comments/posts. You can delete comments from other people’s posts if you’re concerned about privacy, or have made a mistake.
On Twitter, if you have Protected Tweets switched on, only your followers will be able to see your replies on other people’s tweets. Do be aware that if you switch from protected to public at any time, your Tweets and replies will then be made public – delete anything sensitive first.
A word about stories
Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have a “Story” feature – the ability to post photos and/or videos that disappear after a 24-hour period. This may sound awesome, because after 24 hours, it’s gone, right? Well, not quite.
You need to keep in mind that other people may record your story – it’s not necessarily gone forever, even if you do share it privately.
Each social media platform has its own set of standards that it requires users to conform to. For example, on Instagram, you can’t show nipples, on Twitter you can’t threaten violence or physical harm. If you (or another user) doesn’t conform to these standards then posts may be removed and/or accounts suspended. The platform itself may or may not investigate thoroughly – usually they will just remove posts and suspend accounts if they believe a user may be in violation of their terms.
To check if you (or someone who may be harassing you) are conforming to these standards, then have a read in full:
- Facebook Community Standards
- Instagram Community Guidelines
- Twitter Rules and Policies
- Snapchat Community Guidelines
- Reddit Content Policy
Setting your profile to private
Setting your profile to private is available on some social media platforms, including:
- Facebook, control who can find you, the public or private audience of posts
- Instagram, by making your profile private
- Snapchat, by default, with changes made via privacy settings
- Twitter, by switching to Protected Tweets
You cannot set your profile to private on Reddit.
Setting your posts to private
Some platforms give you tighter control of who can see each post.
On Facebook, you can choose the audience of each post (public, private, or certain people), a default audience, and whether you can review posts you’re tagged in by other people before they’re posted to your page. This way, not only can you protect yourself from everyone seeing that horrible selfie your friend tagged you in, but you can filter any content (a picture of you in a revealing dress, or a naughty status your friend wrote) that you’d rather not share with your own followers. Note, it’ll still be posted to the original user page. If that occurs then contact your friend and ask them to take it down. You can also similarly choose the audience of your stories.
Instagram has a Close Friends feature, where you can create a list of Close Friends and choose to only share certain stories with this group.
On Twitter, you can choose the audience of each of your posts via public and protected tweets.
Snapchat allows you to set the audience for your stories, with the ability to create Private stories.
You cannot set certain posts to private on Reddit.
Even if you have a private profile – and especially if you don’t – there will be people that you don’t want to see your profile (and you don’t want to see theirs). Not only is blocking good for ignoring ex boyfriends, it’s also good for getting rid of anyone harassing you online. Follow these links for blocking people on each of the major social media platforms:
- Blocking people on Facebook (so they can’t see what’s posted on your profile, tag you in posts, invite you to events, message you or add you as a friend)
- Blocking people on Instagram (so they can’t find your profile, see or comment on your posts or stories)
- Blocking people on Twitter (so they can’t follow you, tag you in photos, or message you, however they can still see your public tweets when they aren’t logged in)
- Blocking people on Snapchat (so they can’t see any of your private stories, they’ll still see your public stories, use privacy settings to adjust who can contact you directly)
- Blocking people on Reddit (via your privacy settings, so they can’t message you, they can still see your posts and comments)
Deleting posts and comments
It’s relatively easy to delete posts and comments on each social media platform. Do be aware that just because you deleted something, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t already been archived or screenshotted.
- Here’s how to delete a timeline post or photo on Facebook. Pull down arrows next to the post can be used to delete and hide content. Some features may only be available via the desktop version.
- Deleting posts and comments on Instagram.
- Delete a Tweet or a delete a Reply directly from another user’s tweet (via the delete button) on Twitter.
- Delete a Story on Snapchat.
- On Reddit, find the post or comment you’d like to delete, click the three dots in the config menu alongside or below it, then select Delete.
Reporting content and users
There are a multitude of things you can report on Facebook, including abusive or inappropriate things, profiles, spam and more.
Reporting a post or profile on Instagram for abuse or spam.
Here’s how to report violations of Twitter rules, for DMs, Tweets, content in Moments, or for specific types of violations.
You can report a post or comment on Reddit directly from the report button on the post or accept chat from a user in your messages and then report it.
Deleting your account
If worst comes to the worst, you always have the option to delete your social media account. Because of the nature of the internet, you can’t assume it’s gone forever, though – if people have taken screenshots, downloaded your profile in the past, etc., it can still come back to haunt you, although it’s much less likely.
Here’s how to delete your account on each platform:
- You can deactivate or delete your Facebook account.
- Delete or disable your Instagram account.
- Deactivate your Twitter account.
- Delete your Snapchat account.
- Delete your Reddit account (posts will still show with deleted username).
How to spot a fake profile
There are plenty of fake profiles out there, either to catfish you, a nosey parker, or even just a bot trying to stir up trouble for whatever reason.
Being able to spot the difference between a real profile and a fake profile should go some of the way to helping you decide whether or not you should connect with this “person” or whether it’ll be a waste of your time and energy.
Here’s how to spot a faker:
A note about “anonymity” on platforms like Reddit
People love platforms like Reddit and Twitter because they can create an account without anyone knowing their true identity. You don’t have to give your real name, location, etc. You could even do the same on Instagram if you wanted to.
In this “safe space” we’re compelled to be our “true selves” #nofilter
However, because your posts, comments, and photos are available to the public on these platforms, it can potentially be used to figure out who you really are.
If you want total anonymity, you need to make sure you haven’t painted a picture of yourself (via your account) where someone who knows you well could figure out who you are.
Strangers also have the potential to figure out your true identity via a process known as doxxing, which involves things like:
- Scanning other sites for the same/similar username
- Your linked email address (use a clean email address not linked to other accounts or usernames to avoid this)
- Pinging your IP
- Lookup sites (such as SnoopSnoo for Reddit)
- Reverse lookup sites (if they find your phone number/website/a picture of you)
If you want to use an anonymous account, make sure to take extra care during setup, be careful what you share, and delete your account and start a new one every year – just to be safe.
If you think you have been doxxed, check out this guide for what to do in the first 24 hours.
Building a social media following safely
“Ok, but I want to build a following!”
You should treat your public account as a carefully created “representation” of you. Think of the image that you would like to portray to your followers. This isn’t necessarily a true representation of all of you, just a “slice of life.”
By keeping your public image and your private self semi-separate, you can separate yourself as you the person vs you the brand – no matter how much realness you bring to your account.
What you share on your public account needs to be carefully considered. Sensitive material shared in the public sphere can damage a reputation and your personal brand, which can leave a mark on you for many years to come. Some people have needed to switch locations, careers, and even withdraw from the internet, thanks to big missteps on social media when they’re in the public eye. Keep this in mind when you’re creating and posting content.
2 Dealing with harassment
Harassment from an individual
Harassment from multiple people
If you are being harassed by a group of people at once, the best course of action is to remove any posts that are “setting them off” – if you want to of course – block all the users, and if it’s an option, set your profile to private.
When harassment bubbles over into real life
When you have friends and followers that you see in real life, and their online harassment crosses over into real life as well, then it’s time to be calm, mature, and succinct. There may even be a “Why did you block me you ****?”
The appropriate course of action is to say you don’t appreciate being hassled and you’d prefer to simply work out a way to get along like adults or avoid each other.
If the behavior doesn’t stop, then you need to assess the situation further. Is it someone from where you’re studying or working? Then you can approach HR or management about the situation.
If it’s outside of these places, then you may want to approach someone to help you out and step in, or go to the police if you think things are serious enough.
LinkedIn is the social media platform built for career networking. Because it’s for career networking, looking for jobs, and trying to raise your profile from a work perspective, that means it’s also very descriptive about you – often to a public audience.
On LinkedIn, you often display your full name, career history, and current and previous locations to the public. While this is all well and good from the perspective of finding new work opportunities or people to connect with, it can also make it very easy for people to target you – those who don’t have your best interests at heart.
Profile privacy settings
As with other social media platforms, LinkedIn has a number of different privacy settings that you can control.
By default, your LinkedIn profile appears publicly, including in search engines. The ‘Basic’ information provided publicly includes your (full) name, number of connections, industry, and region.
You then have the option to show your profile picture to:
- Your connections – people you have connected with on the platform
- Your network – people up to three degrees of separation from your connections
- All LinkedIn Members
You can then show or hide the following publicly:
- Posts & Activities
- Current Experience
- (& Details)
- Past Experience
- (& Details)
How much you choose to share (or not share) in each of these sections is up to you. Be aware that being highly descriptive in these sections, as well as having your profile publicly available, may leave you open to being impersonated online or set you up for defrauding. It’s best to approach how much information you share with caution – and always have that in the back of your mind.
Where else is LinkedIn different from other platforms?
Another feature of LinkedIn that differs from other platforms is the ability for Premium members (those who’ve paid) to see who has visited their profile. Keep this in mind if you’re thinking you’re secretly stalking ex boyfriends – they may still be able to tell!
3 Online Dating
Online dating is without doubt one of the most popular ways for people to meet in the world today. In days gone by you’d meet someone in a bar, or out walking your dog, now you’re seeing who’s closest to you on Tinder or on other dating apps.
While we position this guide towards straight dating, the same or similar rules apply if you identify as LGBTQ.
Different sites for different likes
Younger audience (less then 30), mainly for hookups
Similar to Tinder, a bit “deeper”, women message first
Based on common interests, designed for relationships
- Coffee Meets Bagel
More extensive profiles for meaningful connections, based on friends of friends
A wide range of ages, relationship types – an all-rounder
Generally an older audience looking for a serious relationship
Christian dating, wide audience
There are plenty of other more niche dating apps and websites that you can explore, too – for just friends, through to fetish based relationships. Get out there and have a look if you’re after something a little different to those mentioned above.
A word about location
Various dating apps and websites are more (or less) popular depending on what region of the world you live in. If you’re unsure what the most popular ones are in your area, poll your single friends!
Building a profile
When you are building an online dating profile, there are a few things to consider:
Choose new photos for your profile pictures, or at the very least, do a Google reverse image search on them, to ensure they can’t be linked back to you easily if you don’t want them to be. If you use raunchy photos, be aware that others can screenshot them and post them online.
Whatever platform you’re on, you’re generally required to add some sort of profile bio (biography). Some platforms require more in depth profiles than others.
Here are some general tips for creating your bio:
- Don’t give out any specifics – that could be used to personally identify you offline
- Do write about your likes and dislikes – you’re more likely to meet people who you have things in common with
- Don’t say anything too raunchy – unless you’re prepared for the consequences. Being overtly sexual may lead to what you want (a fun, overtly sexual encounter) or, conversely, what you don’t want (“slutshamers”, even someone meeting up with you who pretends to be into it then “punishes” you for the behavior later on – and not in a good way)
- If you’re stumped, go with generic info – add your nationality, say you like the beach, your favorite TV show, meeting new friends, etc.
Screening potential dates
Look out for obvious model photographs, think “is this a real person”. Ask questions, ask to see them on live chat or video to check their authenticity. Trust your instincts and use your common sense. Check out online forums and discussion boards to determine whether the dating site/app is genuine.
Never give out any personal information online until you are sure you can trust the individual you are communicating with.
Make sure you follow these steps:
- Take a look at his pictures
Do they look too good to be true? It could be a catfish, taken from someone else’s Instagram or online profile. Reverse image search his pictures to see if anything pops up – and if it does, whether the name and location match the person you’re chatting with.
Don’t just go from a couple of words to a meet. You’re not so desperate that you can’t take 10 minutes or so probing your potential date.
- Stalk him
Put those stalking skills into action and see if you can find out anything about this person from Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn… You may be able to uncover more about your potential date than they simply put out there on their dating profile.
- Ask a friend
There’s no harm in getting a second opinion on a potential date from a friend, preferably one who’s had plenty of experience with online dating. They may be a better evaluator, be able to spot possible red flags, or help you seek further information before taking the plunge and setting up a date.
How to safely set up a date from an app
Meet in a public place, somewhere you’ve been before and feel comfortable
Whether it’s a coffee shop, bar or restaurant, make sure it’s somewhere you know well. It should be in a busy location – not a random hole in the wall. It’s better if you suggest the spot for this date, but if he wants to choose, then make sure you go and scope it out first.
Get there early and chat to the staff
Another good way to stay safe is to get to the spot early and either chat to the bartender or waiter/waitress. Let them know you’re on an online date and have a code word if you’re feeling unsafe. The ‘Angel Shot’ has been publicized as a way to let staff know you want a cab called – or even the police called. By sorting this out beforehand, you can avoid a nasty incident.
Get your friends involved
Have a friend on call – preferably some of your friends hanging out close by that you can escape to. At the very least, message a friend and tell them that you got there and met him safely. If you are feeling the date is going south, make a phone call to your friend and ask about her grandma – this is her cue to know something is wrong. If your date is really bad, then you can turn on the waterworks and excuse yourself. You may need to practice fake crying for this one, though! If your friend/s are round the corner, they can also come in and interrupt your date. Safety in numbers!
Sharing your location with a friend
This is critical for ensuring someone knows where you are at all times. Message your friend if you are planning on moving locations – to another bar or club, or even to his or your house. Set up location tracking via an app such as Find My Friends for peace of mind. Set up times when you’ll message your friend if you plan on spending the night with him – or when you go to bed.
Drinking on dates
One of the mistakes that many of us make on first dates is overindulging in the alcohol department. That fancy bottle of wine that you’re drinking with dinner is so delicious that you two decide to order another one, or you go too hard on the amazing cocktails…
There are various ways that you can help prevent getting too drunk. Make sure that you eat breakfast and lunch if it’s a dinner date, and order something heavy for dinner that’ll help soak up the alcohol. Sure, you might be concerned about looking skinnier, but trust us, he doesn’t care, and eating well is better than ending up too drunk.
If you’re meeting for drinks, the same goes – eat a meal beforehand. Always have a glass of water or sparkling water on hand to intersperse your sips of wine/champagne/cocktail. And if you’re feeling drunk, it’s time to leave – say you’re looking forward to the next date but you have an early morning meeting.
Never take drugs on dates. This is a recipe for disaster. While we’re not here to judge your recreational use, you should never do something like this with someone you don’t know very well.
Sexting happens. We’re not here to tell you whether or not to sext (send private pictures of yourself) – we’re just here to guide you in how to do it more safely if in fact you choose to do so.
Taking pictures without identifying features
The best way to save yourself from your pictures going public and embarrassing yourself (or worse, getting blackmailed) is to only ever take pictures that can’t personally identify you. How can you do this?
Here are some tips:
How to prevent your private pictures from going public
If you can’t be identified by your photos, and they go public, who’s to say it’s you? This really is the best way to cover your bases when talking about private pictures going public.
Sending pictures to people you trust is another one – it’s not something you should really be sharing with strangers! Of course, even people you do trust can break that trust. If you wouldn’t want anyone sharing your photo in their friends’ group chat, then it’s best not to send it in the first place.
Taking action if your private pictures go public
What do you do if you find your private pictures have gone public? This is often what’s known as revenge porn, or non-consensual pornography. And in many jurisdictions it’s illegal. Someone posting your personal nudes without consent is a crime.
Your first step should be to remember the golden rule: evidence, evidence, evidence. Download the website page/s, take screenshots/videos, etc.
Next up, contact the website in question, whether it’s a porn site, Facebook group, Twitter, etc. and ask them to take the pictures down. Also request information on who posted the content (including IP), and when it was posted. Check in often to see that it’s taken down.
If you’re satisfied enough with this process then you don’t necessarily have to take it further. However, to stop it from happening again or to someone else, taking it to the police can be a good idea. Sure, it’s embarrassing and might make you feel bad, but having the fact that he did this on record – even if you don’t decide to prosecute – can leave a trail of evidence of repeated behavior if he does it to someone else in the future.
5 What to do if you’re being sexually harassed online
Sexual harassment is rife online. A 2018 US survey by Stop Street Harassment found that 41% of women have experienced online sexual harassment. If you are being sexually harassed online you don’t have to put up with it.
Here’s the best way to tackle the problem, step by step:
1Always collect all the evidence
If someone is harassing you online, step one is collecting all the incriminating evidence. That means taking screenshots of their communications with you, pictures, posts, profiles, everything. Take videos if you need to. Evidence is your key to prove you didn’t just “make something up.”
Check to see if they are harassing other women online – delve a little deeper. If you can find evidence of them harassing others, make sure to capture this evidence too.
If you are just annoyed at the person and want them to leave you alone but take no further action, then you should consider blocking them. We’ve outlined the strategies for blocking people on social media above, but you can also do this on other platforms, too, like Skype and Gmail.
If you’d like to take further action against this person, you have the opportunity to report them on the platform that they are harassing you on. Each platform has a means in which you can report users for harassment – so check the policy. We have already outlined how to report content and users on the big five social media platforms above, but for other platforms, you might need to delve into their help sections.
4If they try to get you blackmail-style
This can be quite scary. “If you don’t do X, I’ll do X.” For a start, you might like to investigate whether their blackmail claims have any merit. Do they really have control of your web cam, or your bank account, etc. etc.? It pays to get a trusted friend to evaluate whether their claims have merit. You may be affected by fear or shock and unable to adequately evaluate the situation with your wits about you.
If this seems serious, you can follow step 5.
5Criminal behavior can be reported to the authorities
There are some times in which online sexual harassment can be a criminal activity, and this can apply particularly if you are experiencing a blackmail-type encounter. This is the time when you can go to the police. Take the evidence you have collected with you, on USB if possible, and submit a report.
6 What happens if you’re sexually harassed by a colleague or someone at school?
As a woman, particularly at school or in the workplace, we can often feel like we are unsure of the boundaries of what constitutes sexual harassment. Maybe a colleague sent you an email that said “nice dress today!” when you were wearing a low-cut dress and you found it creepy, but you’re not sure it constitutes harassment. Or maybe a college tutor adds you on Instagram and starts liking all your bikini pics.
If someone sends you a dick pic or something really explicit then you know for sure it’s sexual harassment, but a lot of the time we might feel online sexual references by people from work or school might just be a misunderstanding, or feel like it’s not “serious” enough to take action.
Here’s the thing: if anyone at school or work is making you feel uncomfortable with sexual connotations, no matter how insignificant, or if you feel you’re doubting yourself, there is no reason not to say something.
The approach you take depends on the severity of the harassment. Here’s a good starting point:
1. Always collect all the evidence
Check out our section above about collecting all the evidence – screenshots, recordings, you name it, capture it.
2. Approach the person and tell them to stop
Before taking further action, approach the culprit and ask them to please stop their behavior, as it’s not appreciated. You can always take a trusted friend with you if you’re nervous about facing them on your own. If this doesn’t work, or the behavior was completely out of line, then you can…
3. Approach your boss/professor/trusted authority figure with the information
Your higher ups are there to protect you. They’ll also likely have a fair idea of sexual harassment policy. They can advise you on the situation, perhaps approach the person in question themselves.
4. Going to HR or the admin department, with an advocate
HR (or your school department) are the people who are tasked with overseeing sexual harassment in the workplace or school. They are the only ones that put in place policies – as well as enforce them. They will have a repeatable process to help guide you through the next steps.
Be aware that not all departments are the same. Some may not be so sympathetic, or make you question yourself. While this is very poor behavior on their part, it’s why it’s a good idea to bring an advocate to your meeting – like a trusted friend or authority figure.
7 Protecting your privacy online
There are about a million tips we could share about online privacy in general, however we want to cover some of the basics that you need to stay safe online.
Sharing identifying details online
Don’t share identifying details online! Don’t mention your address on buy/sell boards, avoid check ins that could alert people you’re out of the house, scrap your full name on public forums, hide your phone number except in private messages…
Your identifying details need to be kept private. Although the internet might seem like a welcoming and friendly environment, it can be all too easy to fall victim to fraud, theft or scams – often due to disclosing these sorts of details. Always err on the side of caution.
Online web forms
It seems like every other website these days has a web form they want you to complete for whatever reason. Just pause before filling these out and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I need to fill in this form?
- Do I trust this company?
- Do I really want to share my details with them?
- Does this website have HTTPS? (otherwise your details are transmitted in plaintext across the internet)
If the answer to any of these questions is no, but you still want to access the content (perhaps it’s an e-book, or report you’d like to read) you can always fill in the form with false data. That way you still get the content but without disclosing your personal details. A real email address is often required – you might like to create a new email account for these types of occasions.
Do I need a VPN?
A VPN is a good idea, because it hides your IP address from all the websites you connect to. Your IP is like your home address, but for the internet. In some instances, an actual street address could be determined by your IP.
By using a VPN all your internet traffic goes only to the VPN, then routes to everywhere else. It’s good practice to use one, simply from this security perspective, although there are plenty of other benefits to using one as well.
We hope this has given you all the information you need in order to protect yourself online! It’s a jungle out there – so stay safe and stay sane. Don’t put up with what you don’t have to. Listen to your gut, trust your instincts and stand up to bad behavior.
Want us to include more online safety tips? Let us know in the comments section below and we’ll add it in!