As I said previously: the Internet allows people an opportunity to put themselves out there in ways that no other media can. It allows people to share, speak out, help others, question things, look for support, develop new knowledge and become part of a larger, global conversation/community.I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. - Martin Luther King Jr.
The offshoot is that, like it or not, we should all consider what our "digital footprint" looks like over time: that trail of data left behind by the interactions that we all have had in a digital environment. Blogs, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, they all paint a portrait of who you are, what you are all about, and what you think, feel and believe over time. What does yours look like? More importantly, what does your son's or daughter's say about them to potential admissions officers, employers and people who they will want to enter into future relationships with?
Will your children be satisfied with people judging them by, to paraphrase Dr. King above, their content and their character as it is portrayed online right now? What about in ten years? Twenty?
For teenagers who have come of age in a world where reality TV has dominated their viewing practices, it probably seems perfectly normal or even in some ways necessary to disclose their opinions, desires, locations, relationships and activities during seemingly every moment of the day through various digital means. In fact, much new educational research on engagement and relevancy in classrooms encourages students to have more opportunities to become “content creators” and eschew traditional essays and reports in favor of the creation of videos, photo essays, blogs and the use of Twitter to communicate and share their writing and demonstrate their understanding of new content.
This is a great example of where a real generation gap exists. For anyone over thirty, the constant revelation of every thought, event and conflict that occurs during the day by our young people is at the very least narcissistic and embarrassing and, at worst, compromising and dangerous. Most adults understand the value of privacy the ability to control what people know about them and their personal life. Adults tend to shape their self-presentation to fit their audience. Young people tend to have the opposite approach.
Most of the kids who have been raised over the last 20 years have been fed a steady diet of self esteem building messages and activities that helped shape and create what many people have described as the "Me, Me, Me Generation." That, in conjunction with the Internet's ability to provide a worldwide audience for whatever content they may produce has made every waking moment and thought seem important enough to release into the world. But what are the messages that our developing and often emotional and immature children are putting out there? And at what cost to them long term?
Because of much media attention and education, most teens have become relatively savvy about sharing information that might make them vulnerable to online predators such as addresses, e-mails and phone numbers. That being said, posting compromising pictures or information about themselves that they may later regret has become a rite of passage for most young people, despite a growing number of stories in the media reporting that young people are losing out on leadership positions, college acceptances, scholarships, internships and jobs because of things discovered online by people interested in their content and their character.
What will your child's reputation be? At this point, many teenagers may genuinely feel that the identity that they have established for being outrageous, funny, “hot” or “not giving a $#%&” matters more than anything else to them. As parents and educators who have a long term vision beyond 3:00 PM this afternoon, we have a responsibility to remind them that later in life they may not feel that way. For most, getting into college, finding a good job and a fulfilling relationship will likely supersede the need to maintain a high school reputation five or ten years from now, so it’s vital to help them establish habits such as imagining what a future employer or relationship partner will feel about what they are posting today.
Have you searched for your son or daughter online? Try this: Get together with your son or daughter and put their name or nicknames, surrounded by quotes (and maybe the abbreviation of the state you live in) into a search engine and see what comes up. Try using Dogpile or Clusty which show results from multiple search engines at the same time. You might be surprised by the amount of content and the things contained therein, so be prepared for anything. In many cases you will find that your child's name will yield not only what they have posted themselves, but what others have posted about them as well. Ask them to use passwords when necessary to see their other content as well. But be prepared for anything. The results may be quite shocking and embarrassing.
Is this an invasion of privacy? Let me put it this way, if more than five billion people have potential access to it, it's not private. That's the point, kid.
Is your child the respected, admired student leader that both you and their teachers know, or the misogynist, unkind, occasionally disrespectful, homophobic or racist teenager that is portrayed in their Twitter account? Is your student an athlete and a scholar, or the student whose non-uniformed pictures on Facebook portray them frequently surrounded by red Solo plastic cups and plumes of suspicious looking smoke? Would you let your daughter leave the house in the clothes that she is wearing (or not wearing) in those pictures from the concert or party that she attended? Would you want your neighbors to see your children in that light? What would you think about the words and pictures attached to your kids being posted on a billboard with their name? Because it is right now. Anyone else can see what you see too. Really.... who is this kid to the rest of the world? They are exactly who we see. Even if they aren't.
The reality likely is that your son or daughter is a little of both. And neither. I tend to think that most teens, because they are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally, are what I call "situationally appropriate." When surrounded by adults and given expectations for behavior and performance they will live up to your expectations. In the absence of that context and while trying to fit in, we see other behaviors and attitudes creep up to the surface. The content that you or a future adult who will be making decisions about the fate of your kids may find offensive was likely posted in a moments notice without much thought or in order to avoid feeling "left behind" from a group of friends who are doing the same thing. The fact is, with teens and with adults, when people are part of a group, they often feel a loss of self-awareness and are less likely to follow normally accepted restraints and inhibitions, and the Internet is a pretty big group to belong to, let me tell you.
Recently, new "temporary" services like SnapChat and Vine allow kids to send content (primarily pictures and video content as well as messages) out to the world for a pre-determined amount of time. Unfortunately, the safety of that format is a mirage as well. It is quite easy to save that content forever and post it in other, more permanent formats. So, that sexting picture that your 16-year old just sent to someone on SnapChat is just as likely to end up permanently on a message board somewhere with their name and home state attached when the relationship inevitably goes sour, as if they had posted it themselves. It's a dangerous world, kids.
The point of this exercise should not be to judge the way our teens communicate, create and socialize but to get them to think more carefully about the online image of themselves that they are making. Management of your reputation is a lifelong challenge for anyone, but especially so for this generation who have put every moment of their lives into a medium that never really goes away even after you try to delete it. There is always a record somewhere if someone really wants to find it.
Teaching your kids good habits now will hopefully avoid them leaving behind footprints that they will regret. In addition it will make it more likely that they will be able to create an impression of themselves that they can be proud of when a potential employer or date searches for them or when they are parents and doing the same thing with their own children.
This video may help make the right impression for you: