That recent tech innovation known as the internet has made keeping in touch with family and friends easier than ever — but it might also have brought you some unwelcome attention from people you'd rather not keep up correspondence with. If you want to minimise the chances of getting contacted out of the blue, here's what to do.
We're only going to cover some simple privacy tips here without wading into any legal issues, but if something more serious is going on, there are tools you can use to make a report: read up on the instructions for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Limit who can contact you
The big social networks all give you a certain level of control over who can contact you, though some have more granular options than others.
Facebook's privacy settings always seem to be in a state of flux but right now the default setting is that anyone can send anyone a message on Facebook — but messages sent by people who you aren't friends with go into a "Message requests" folder so you can scan them without responding, or ignore them completely.
If you have to be friends with someone for whatever reason, but don't want any messages from them, you can use the Mute option inside the conversation in Messenger. If that's not enough, you can block them, which means your Facebook friendship is cancelled (if it was active in the first place) and no form of direct communication is possible from either side.
The options aren't difficult to find: you can block someone through the conversation menu in Messenger, or via the main Facebook site by clicking on the menu button (three horizontal dots) on the person's profile.
Over on Twitter you absolutely have to be following someone before that person can send you a direct message, unless you've opened up DMs to all, so you can simply block messages by unfollowing the sender. As for mentions in your timeline, you can hide these by muting users (click the cog icon on any profile page), or go further and do a full block (again via the same cog icon, or the expanded menu that appears by any tweet).
You can find similar mute and block options inside individual conversation threads on Instagram (tap the "i" icon to find the block setting). Instagram lets anyone send anyone a direct message, though there's a Facebook-style approval process if you're not already friends with someone. If you do block someone, any mentions of your username in comments by that person won't show up, and they won't be able to see your feed or message you. Meanwhile you can hide your stories from certain people via the Story Setting menu under Options in the mobile app.
Limit what you're sharing
Beyond the boundaries of your private inboxes on these networks there's also the issue of oversharing — remember anyone can view public Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts, whether or not they're friends with you or even registered on the platforms themselves.
That means being wary of sharing anything that could be used to identify you or your location in real life. Avoid tagging your office location in public Instagram posts, for example, or tweeting out your morning jog route if you absolutely don't want to be accosted by a stranger from the internet. We don't want to scare you into thinking people are pouring over your every move on social media — they're probably not — but it's a good idea to act as if they are if you want to be as safe as possible.
You're probably not posting much that's fully public on your Facebook page but you can check by visiting your profile on the web, clicking the three dots on the profile picture and then choosing View As.... As for Twitter and Instagram, unless you want to make your accounts completely private (for approved friends only), just be careful what you share.
Limit how easily you can be found
On top of the tips we've mentioned above, you can limit the ease with which other people can look you up on social media. Not using your real name is a good start — though of course there might be genuine friends seeking you out too, so you need to strike a balance with how easily you can be found.
Head to your Facebook settings on the web, click Privacy, and under the Who can look me up? heading you can stop people from finding you via your email address and phone number, as well as prevent your profile from showing up in web search results.
There are similar options on Twitter: on the web click Privacy and safety from your settings page and untick the boxes marked Let others find me by my email address and Let others find me by my phone number. Instagram doesn't let you limit your discoverability in this way, but unlinking your Facebook and Twitter accounts (via Linked Accounts in Settings in the mobile app) will certainly help you stay under the radar.