When it comes to staying connected, many college students are finding original and unique ways to communicate online.

Whether it’s blogging about the best parties on campus or channeling their inner Steven Spielberg and posting a video on Facebook, social networking may be the quickest and simplest way for students to express themselves.

But what type of message are students sending and are they going too far? Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org outlined some important social networking dos and don’ts for college students below.

Don’t post the wrong information . Young people who post inappropriate pictures or videos of themselves could live to regret it if its seen by the wrong people. This includes future employers, college counselors or business associates. And it’s not just images — this includes video as well. A student can be at a party and be captured by someone else’s video camera in a way that may embarrass them now or later on.

So whether it’s a photo, a video or a detailed written description, there are certain things that are better off left unsaid. I spoke with a college administrator who said he had to fire a student residential advisor because of an online picture of him drinking beer in his dorm room, a clear violation of campus rules. As we all know, there's plenty of cases of residential advisors drinking in their room ... but this one was caught on the web.

Don’t post nasty comments . Often referred to as “cyberbullying,” it’s easy for nasty comments to get disseminated far and wide on the Web. My advice? If you have something negative to say about someone, say it to their face, or keep it to yourself. Even idle gossip among friends is better than posting it online, where it can live forever and come back to haunt you.

Do know about privacy settings. If you use a service like MySpace, Facebook or Twitter, be aware of the service’s privacy features. Consider having a private profile that only friends can see, but if you do that, be careful about who you admit as a “friend.” You lose your privacy when you allow “friends” who aren’t really friends to access your online profiles. Sadly, friends sometimes become ex-friends. Some of the nastiest gossip on the Internet is from ex-girlfriends or boyfriends who decide to reveal personal information after a breakup. I know — you would never do that and trust that your friends wouldn’t either — but it does happen.

Do your research. Not all social networks are created equal. While the major ones — Facebook, MySpace and Bebo — have safety and security personnel to do all they can to help protect users, there are also sites that don’t invest at all in safety and security. Do a little research to make sure you’re dealing with a site that’s both legitimate and responsible, but even then, be aware that site operators can only go so far to protect their users. In this interactive Web 2.0 world, what you say can definitely be used against you.

Here are some more basic tips to help you protect yourself:

Tip #1: Be your own person. Don't let friends or strangers pressure you to be someone you aren't. And know your limits. You may be 'net-savvy, but people and relationships change, and unexpected stuff can happen on the Internet.

Tip #2: Passwords are private. Don't share your password even with friends. It's hard to imagine, but friendships change and you don't want to be impersonated by anyone. Pick a password you can remember but no one else can guess. One trick: Create a sentence like, "I graduated from King School in 05" for the password "IgfKSi05."

Tip #3: Read between the "lines." It may be fun to check out new people for friendship or romance, but be aware that, while some people are nice, others act nice because they're trying to get something. Flattering or supportive messages may be more about manipulation than friendship or romance.

Tip #4: Don't talk about sex with strangers. Be cautious when communicating with people you don't know in person, especially if the conversation starts to be about sex or physical details. Don't lead them on — you don’t want to be the target of a predator's grooming. If they persist, call your local police or contact CyberTipline.com .

Tip #5: Avoid in-person meetings. The only way someone can physically harm you is if you're both in the same location, so — to be 100 percent safe — don't meet them in person. If you really have to get together with someone you "met" online, don't go alone. Have the meeting in a public place, tell a parent or some other solid backup, and bring some friends along.

Tip #6: Be smart when using a cell phone. All the same tips apply with phones as with computers. Except phones are with you wherever you are, often away from home and your usual support systems. Be careful who you give your number to and how you use GPS and other technologies that can pinpoint your physical location.

© 2008 ConnectSafely.org

Check out ConnectSafely.org for more safety tips.

• For more back to school tips, click over >>