A Complete Guide to Facebook's Privacy Settings

How (and Why!) to Control Who Sees Your Facebook Posts

Facebook is many things to many people. For companies, it's a way to reach their customers in a direct and personal way. For individuals, it can be a way to reach out to far-flung family and friends or to find like-minded people to help you get through parenthood or health crises. Sweepstakes fans use Facebook to help them win more prizes.

The flexibility of Facebook's platform means that you can put yourself at risk if you do not pay attention to who can see your posts. People have been fired, denied admission to college, and sued for things they've unwisely posted on Facebook.

That's why it's so important to pay attention to who can see your posts. Luckily, Facebook lets you choose among five pre-set options to quickly select privacy levels for each post you make. You can use the privacy options to decide which updates are meant for the whole world to see, and which you should reserve for trusted people.

To set these privacy options, look for a small gray world icon with a drop-down arrow next to it. Clicking on the arrow will let you select the privacy setting you need.

Here is a breakdown of what each of Facebook's privacy options ordered from least to most restrictive.

The "Everyone" Privacy Setting on Facebook

Collage of photographs
This privacy level makes your posts open to anyone who stumbles across them. John Lund / Getty Images

"Everyone" is the most public of Facebook's privacy levels. Anyone can see these posts, be they your friends, total strangers, or people from your past.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. If you are trying to get votes for a contest you entered or you want to receive extra entries when people enter through your unique link, making your posts open to everyone gives you a broader audience.

Some people also like to make a few posts open to everyone so that people they know who haven't become their friends yet can identify them.

You should be sure, though, that you aren't posting anything here that could embarrass you or turn off a potential employer or admissions officer. If you wouldn't say something to your parents, your pastor, and/or your employer, don't post it to everyone.

Most importantly, don't post any information here that could put you in danger including your address or telephone number, check-ins that give away your current location, or dates when you're going on vacation and your home will be empty. Personal photos and (especially) photos of your kids are also better posted with a different privacy setting.

Check out 10 Things You Should Never Post on Social Media for other important safety tips about sensitive information you should protect.

The "Friends of Friends" Privacy Setting on Facebook

Faces on discs randomly connected by arrows
This privacy policy makes your posts open to your friends AND their friends. Dimitri Otis / Getty Images

Posting to "friends of friends" is more restrictive than "everyone" but it still reaches a lot of people, and you don't have much control over who is seeing what you post with this setting.

The "friends of friends" privacy setting includes all of the people you have added to your friends' list, plus all of the people that THOSE people have added. 

Again, this isn't necessarily bad. Posting to your friends' friends could help you meet cool people that you don't know yet.

But you have no influence over who your friends add to their lists. Some people are much pickier than others, and some of those less picky friends may have added people that you wouldn't trust.

So you'll need to follow many of the same restrictions that you do when you post to "everyone." Avoid personal information that could put you and your family at risk, and try not to be too controversial unless you don't mind being the target of judgment and the center of heated conversations.

The "Friends" Privacy Setting on Facebook

Portrait of enthusiastic business people in circle
This privacy policy will make your posts open only to your circle of friends. Caiaimage/Martin Barraud / Getty Images

Now you're getting down to the privacy levels where you have control over who sees what you post. When you use the "friends" privacy setting, only the people who you have approved as friends can see what you've written.

Now, some people are much choosier about their Facebook friends than others. Some people only approve friends they know personally, while others approve any request they receive, and neither is wrong (although you should be aware of Facebook friend scams to avoid).

If you are picky about your friends, you can open up a little more with the information you post here. If you mean more toward "the more the merrier," then you should still be very careful when posting to friends.

The "Custom" Privacy Setting on Facebook

Couple taking self-portrait at music festival
This privacy level makes your post open only to specific friends or groups of friends that you set. Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Facebook's "custom" privacy setting lets you pick specific people or groups of people to share your posts with.

For example, you can set up friend lists to include people with specific interests or points of view. That way, you can make posts visible to your closest friends, to the people who live nearby, to other sweepstakes fans, or however else you group your friends.

That way, you can make sure you only share your kids' pictures with your relatives or post about new giveaways to people who like to enter sweepstakes. You could set up a group of people who like to exchange contest votes or who share the same political leanings.

This setting gives you much more freedom to express yourself safely and without boring people who aren't interested in specific topics.

The "Only Me" Privacy Setting on Facebook

Hispanic teenager drawing heart with lipstick
This privacy level lets you make posts just for yourself. JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

If you like talking to yourself, the "only me" privacy setting is for you. Just as it sounds, you are the only one who can see these posts.

Why would you want to post only to yourself? Well, you can use this for apps that post for you, if you want to make sure they're not aggravating your friends with too many auto-generated posts. You can post reminders for yourself, or link to articles you want to read later.

If you have to post a link on Facebook to enter a giveaway and the sponsor doesn't need to verify the post, you can also use the "only me" setting.

A Few Exceptions to Keep in Mind

Young woman stretching at desk
Privacy levels are important. Choose wisely. Seb Oliver / Getty Images

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to privacy in social media. For one thing, Facebook gives some exceptions to their privacy settings. When someone is tagged in a post, for example, they will be able to see it even if they would normally not be eligible.

Plus, you should also remember that there are ways to get around most privacy settings. A friend could take a screen shot of your post and post it publicly, for example. Or your Facebook account could be hacked, and the hacker could see everything you posted, even only to yourself.

There are some things you should never post on social media, regardless of the securty settings you choose. If something would ruin your life or embarrass you terribly if it got out, better to keep it offline.

Facebook offers privacy levels as an easy way to control who has access to your information. But remember that the best way to prevent sensitive information from being leaked publicly is to avoid posting it on Facebook in the first place.