This story has been updated. It was originally published on February 7, 2018.
Your social media accounts help you share your daily life with friends. But the platforms can go further than that: automatically alerting everyone when you become available online, read a message, or even visit a location.
As a general rule, if you don’t want your nearest and dearest to know what you’re up to every minute of every day, you can try posting less frequently. Your photos, check-ins, and text updates can convey more information than you intend. If you’d rather keep posting, there are certain key settings you should tweak within your apps to leave a smaller digital footprint.
Disable your activity status
Many social apps will show your friends a notification when you’re active, and even when you’re offline, they can display the last time you visited. If you’d rather not broadcast your presence, many social networks will let you turn off this display.
In WhatsApp, enter the Settings menu, then go to Account and select Privacy. From this screen, tap Last Seen, followed by Nobody to prevent anyone from knowing the last time you accessed the Meta-owned messenger.
Instagram also has an indicator of when you were last active. To turn this off, tap your avatar to open your profile, then hit the menu button (on Android, it looks like three dots, and on iOS, it’s three lines) in the top right. From there, go to Settings, Privacy, and Activity Status. Turn off the toggle switches next to Show Activity Status and Show When You’re Active Together. This hides your own activity from everyone, but also prevents you from seeing when anyone else was last active.
You can hide your active status in Facebook Messenger too, but it stops you from viewing who else is currently online. Tap your avatar, followed by Active Status. Like Instagram, there are two options controlled by toggle switches: Show when you’re active and Show when you’re active together. Turn these off. All your messages will still come through, but no one else will know when you’re actually active in the app.
Turn off read receipts
When you’re trying to preserve your privacy, one-on-one messaging options let you stay off the social media radar while still keeping in touch with people. So next time you’re ready to post an update, consider pinging a few friends in a group chat on, say, WhatsApp, rather than broadcasting your activities to everyone you know. To preserve even more of your privacy, turn off read receipts—those notifications that let your friends know when you’ve read their messages.
In WhatsApp, for example, go to Settings, then Account, followed by Privacy. There, you can turn off Read Receipts. With that done, no one will know when you’ve seen their messages, but you won’t know when your friends have seen theirs, either.
Twitter also lets you disable read receipts in your direct messages, so contacts won’t know whether you’ve read their notes yet. Tap your avatar icon in the top left, pick Settings and privacy, go to Privacy and safety, and finally hit Direct messages. Turn off the Show read receipts button. The usual deal is in place here as well: once you turn this off, you won’t be able to see when other people have picked up their direct messages either.
In the Facebook Messenger and Snapchat apps, you can’t turn off read receipts. Still, sticking to individual chats in apps like these will preserve your lurker status better than posting on public social media networks.
Stay off the map
Social media apps can use your current location to feed you relevant ads and alert you about nearby events. But they can also broadcast your whereabouts—a feature you might want to turn off.
On Snapchat, for example, tap the silhouette or Bitmoji icon in the top left. Then hit the cog icon in the top right, scroll down to See My Location, and make sure Ghost Mode is switched on. This mode prevents others from seeing where you are.
Facebook also shares your location with your friends. To disable this feature, tap the menu button (three horizontal lines) on the right-hand side of the screen. Go into the settings, then tap Location, select Nearby Friends, and set the main toggle switch to off. This will prevent your friends from looking up your current location or getting alerts when you’re in the area.
These networks can also attach your location to your status updates. On the bright side, Facebook and Twitter make it easy to avoid oversharing: They will only reveal your location if you specifically tap the location-tagging button while composing your post. Still, it’s worth double-checking your message before you post, to make sure you’re not accidentally revealing too much.
Limit the audience
To use social media networks without broadcasting your presence, we’ve discussed sending direct messages to a few contacts rather than posting updates for all of them to see. In addition to that method, Facebook lets you limit the audience for your updates on a post-by-post basis.
Whenever you’re composing an update, tap the audience selector button just under your name—it will probably say Friends, but it might have another label, depending on the default audience for your posts. Once you tap it, you can limit who will be able to see this update: Simply select More followed by Specific friends. This lets you hide your update from most people on Facebook while still adding to the News Feed of a few select contacts.
No other social media app gives you the same level of control. However, Twitter and Instagram do let you choose between posting public messages and limiting your audience to only your confirmed followers. Boosting your privacy in this way does mean that you’ll have to specifically approve any new followers before they can see your posts, but it won’t affect your list of current followers.
On Twitter, you can switch to a protected account by tapping your avatar on the top left, then choosing Settings and privacy, Privacy and safety, Audience and tagging, and Protect your Tweets.
To do the same on Instagram, tap the Profile icon (the single portrait silhouette) followed by the menu button in the top right corner of the screen, followed by Settings and Privacy. Then turn on the Private Account option.