From behemoth Facebook to popular microblogging service Twitter, virtual social networking services have experienced an enormous boom in popularity in the last few years. While such sites were once popular solely amongst the teenage crowd and with early-adoption techies, today everyone from senior citizens to President Obama seems to be a member of a social networking site. Sharing candid shots from your family vacation to Orlando or posting an adorable YouTube video for the world to see has never been easier. Unfortunately, as some unlucky individuals have discovered, the lack of boundaries between one’s online presence and his “real-world” persona has the ability to wreak havoc in one’s life outside of Facebook.

Privacy advocates have constantly spoken out about the dangers of life in the online world. Popular television shows like NBC’s Dateline have highlighted the prevalence of pedophiles and dangerous criminals on social networking sites, and some individuals have been stalked, robbed, and even murdered with the help of information gathered through such services. New location-based services, such as Foursquare and Facebook’s Places application, have received particularly high amounts of criticism. Nevertheless, networking sites have continued to draw new users at an astonishing rate.

In addition to the dangers posed by individuals who may troll such services with nefarious intent, in some instances the blurred boundaries between the professional and personal lives of social networking users has caused trouble in the workplace. From reprimands and warnings, to outward dismissal of employees, the number of people who’ve been negatively impacted by the interference of social networking with their work lives continues to rise. In fact, according to a study by internet security firm Proofpoint, 8% of U.S. companies have reported firing employees because of their online behavior.

Though the negative aspects of social networking sites have led some individuals to forgo accounts on such services altogether, many others struggle to find the right balance between over-sharing and acceptable usage of online networking websites. From privacy controls to virtual pseudonyms, a myriad of different options for protecting one’s personal life from unwanted scrutiny are becoming more and more popular. While the usage of such controls is rarely on the forefront of one’s agenda online, experts say the deluge of potential negative consequences should be enough to make any user protect his online activities.

Many major networking sites have begun building privacy controls directly into their services. For example, popular networking site Facebook, which currently boasts more than 500 million unique users, allows people to dictate which individuals are allowed to access certain parts of their profile. From total obscurity to entire openness, users are offered a wide selection of different options, all of which can be tweaked to fit their own personal criteria. Microblogging site Twitter allows its users to make their profiles private in a similar manner, by only allowing approved users to view one’s Twitter feed.

Though great progress has been made in upgrading the privacy controls offered by social networking sites, encouraging the usage of such settings has proven to be a challenge for privacy advocates. Furthermore, though many of the largest social networking services have begun integrating such features, the move appears to be a reluctant response to wide-spread criticisms. As Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously commented this summer, “privacy is dead.” Such comments caused an uproar in the online community, and responses included the drafting of a social networking “bill of rights” at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy technology conference this summer.

While the future of online privacy seems to be an open-ended question, users of social networking sites are encouraged to utilize great caution online. To circumvent any potential negativity that could arise from one’s presence online, users should remember to only connect with other social networking members they know in the real world. Furthermore, privacy controls should be utilized to protect one’s data from unwanted attention.