Stay safe online – social media (Part 1)

While we’re in lockdown we’re using social media more than ever. But are we doing it safely? What are the risks? How can we protect ourselves? What even is social media? In this first article in a series, Dave takes you through the most popular social networking platforms, and gives some general advice about using them safely.

The social media revolution

In a little under 20 years, the use of social media has exploded. The latest statistics show that of a global population of 7.7 billion, 2.4 billion of them are using Facebook. In the UK, 92.7% of young people are engaged with social media in some form, spending on average over 5 hours using the internet. (Ortiz-Ospina, 2019)

The total number of social media users across all platforms was a staggering 3.5 billion in 2019 – that’s half of the world’s population! So we’re more connected than ever before. But that also means there are more opportunities for bad guys to exploit us using social media than ever before!

What is social media?

Wikipedia defines social media as “interactive computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation or sharing of information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks”. Social media platforms share some common characteristics:

  1. Social media are interactive Web 2.0 Internet-based applications. Web 2.0 refers to the ‘second generation’ of the internet that coincided with the first social media platforms. It emphasises user-generated content such as text posts or comments, digital photos or videos, and data generated through online interactions.
  2. User generated content is the lifeblood of social media – without it social media wouldn’t exist.
  3. Users create service-specific profiles and identities for the platform. A user can have more than one profile, and can even pretend to be someone else.
  4. Social media facilitate the development of online social networks by connecting a user’s profile with those of other individuals or groups.

Social media has quite literally changed the way we communicate with each other, and can be used to buy and sell, manipulate our emotions and even influence elections.

What are the top social media platforms?

The answer to this is – it depends. Of the 4 or 5 sources I looked at, each gave a slightly different answer for who the top ones were. However, there was one consistent winner – Facebook. I took an average of the rankings of the most well-known platforms, and this is what I came up with:

  1. Facebook
  2. WhatsApp
  3. Instagram
  4. Facebook messenger
  5. YouTube
  6. Twitter
  7. Snapchat
  8. Tumblr
  9. Linkedin
  10. Pinterest
  11. Skype
  12. Flickr
  13. Nextdoor

As with most things internet-related, this is not a comprehensive list, and as I said it’s an average of the data that I found around the internet. It’s missing things like TikTok, Reddit, or MySpace. Some would argue that sites like SoundCloud should be included.

I’m not going to get into any arguments as to the whys and wherefores; I picked the list of those that would be most useful and familiar to my readership. So there!

The top 6

What follows is a brief overview of each site to help you decide whether it’s something you might use (if you aren’t already), and then I’ll give you some general tips on using social media safely. I’ve split the list into 2 parts; otherwise this post would never end!


Facebook has 44.84 million UK users, (March 2020) and is ranked number one wherever you look. Using Facebook, you can post comments, share photographs and post links to news or other interesting content on the web, chat live, and watch short-form video.

Facebook began in February of 2004 as a school-based social network at Harvard University. It was created by Mark Zuckerberg along with Edward Saverin, both students at the college. It wasn’t until 2006 that Facebook opened to anyone 13 years or older and took off, rapidly overtaking MySpace as the most popular social network in the world. Zuckerberg is now worth around $80 billion!

Facebook provides a customizable set of privacy controls, so users can protect their information from getting to third-party individuals. I’ll take you through these in a later post.


58% of social media users in the UK now use WhatsApp (Feb 2020). Although primarily a mobile app, there is a web version available for use on desktop and laptop PCs. WhatsApp is a ‘chat service’ meaning you can send an unlimited number of messages to family and friends without eating into your text allowance. Of course, you still need a mobile data allowance, but if you’re connected to a WiFi network it’s messaging for free! The great thing about WhatsApp is that it’s encrypted from end-to-end, meaning no-one can snoop on your conversations. You can also set up groups so that you can communicate with many people at once. You can even make voice and video calls!

Of course, it’s owned by Facebook so you need to make up your mind if you want to hand them your details…


Instagram is made for sharing photos and videos from a smartphone. When you post a photo or video on Instagram, it will be displayed on your profile. Other users who follow you will see your posts in their own feed. Likewise, you’ll see posts from other users whom you choose to follow. You can apply filters to your photos, tag them with the location they were taken, and link up your Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr accounts so that all of your Instagram photos will automatically be posted to your social networks after you press Share.

There were 25 million Instagram users in the United Kingdom in April 2019, and it was bought out by Facebook in April 2012.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook launched Messenger in August 2011 after the acquisition of a group messaging app called Beluga. Although it’s owned and operated by Facebook, the app and website are separate from Facebook. You don’t have to be on Facebook’s website or even have a Facebook account, to use Messenger. While the two are partially connected when you have a Facebook account, you aren’t required to have one to use Messenger.

At its core, Messenger is a texting app for both one-on-one and group messaging, but it can also send images and video. Messenger includes lots of built-in emojis, stickers, and GIFs that you can even search through to find exactly what you want. You can even link your debit card to it and send people money!

There were 30.32 million Messenger users in the United Kingdom in April 2020. Combined with Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, it means that Facebook dominates the social media market with 4 out of my top 5 social media apps.


YouTube is the most popular video sharing platform and the second largest search engine behind Google Search. Billions of videos have been uploaded and shared on the platform since it was founded in 2005. In 2018, it was reported by Flint that 37.1 million adults were using the platform in the UK. 

YouTube allows users to upload, view, rate, share, add to playlists, report, comment on videos, and subscribe to other users. It offers a wide variety of user-generated and corporate media videos.

There are two types of users:

  • Video creators (people who have channels and upload videos to them)
  • Video viewers (people who watch videos, interact with videos and subscribe to channels)

Surprisingly, YouTube isn’t owned by Facebook, although in 2006 it was bought out by Google for $1.65 billion, only one year after the first YouTube video was posted!


Twitter is what is known as a ‘microblogging’ service. The ‘micro’ bit is because each post to Twitter is limited to 280 characters (it used to be 140), and ‘blogging’ is short for ‘web logging’, which is simply recording your thoughts on the web. Users post and interact with messages known as “tweets”, and the name is reminiscent of the chatter of birds. There’s a lot of noise and often very little content!

Twitter can be useful for receiving news, following high-profile celebrities, or staying in-touch with old high school friends. It was used to great effect in the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions of 2011, and more recently in the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.

As of February 2020 there were 13.7 million Twitter users in the UK. It has never been bought out by any other internet giant.

The others

I’ll cover the other 7 services in my ‘top 13’ in a future post, so look out for that when I’ll be discussing:

  • Snapchat
  • Tumblr
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Skype
  • Flickr
  • Nextdoor

But for now, the 6 I have covered will get you started on using social media to keep in touch with friends, family and work colleagues. Before that, let’s look at some basic principles of using social media safely

Safe social media rules of thumb

  1. Privacy. Each service has a set of privacy settings to help you control who sees what you post and manage your online experience in a positive way. I’ll go through these in detail for each service in a future post, but for now remember that:
  2. What you post online stays online. Think twice before posting pictures you wouldn’t want your friends, family, work colleagues or future employers to see. Recent research found that 70 percent of job recruiters rejected candidates based on information they found online.
  3. Keep personal info personal. Be careful how much personal info you provide on social networking sites. The more information you post, the easier it may be for someone to use that information to steal your identity, access your data, or commit other crimes such as stalking.
  4. Protect your computer. Install antivirus. Use strong passwords and PINs. Don’t click links in e-mails. Keep your apps updated.
  5. Know what action to take. If someone is harassing or threatening you, remove them from your friends list, block them and report them to the site administrator.
  6. Post only about others as you have them post about you. The Golden Rule applies online as well.

You can find more information on safe use of social media here, but look out for future posts covering it in more detail. For now, stay at home, stay safe.


Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2019) The rise of social media [Online]. Available at (Accessed 30 April 2020)