Growing Up Online

Back in the day, people thought they could be anonymous online. Now everyone knows Internet activity leaves a trail. Some of those footprints are the unintended byproduct of other activities like shopping or registering to get access to a website. Other footprints are deliberate — a mark in the digital sand that says “I was here.” 

If there’s a generation gap today, it’s most obvious in how young people and their parents respond to these intentional footprints. For teenagers raised on reality TV, it seems perfectly natural and even necessary to disclose opinions, dreams, where they were last night and what they looked like when they rolled out of bed this morning. According to a recent study from the Pew Internet Project, two thirds of online teens are “content creators” which means they use videos, photos, blogs and message boards to divulge the minutiae of their lives.   

For anyone over 30, all this self-revelation is TMI (too much information.) At the very least, it’s embarrassing and, at the worst, it could be compromising. Most adults still believe in the value of privacy which, at its simplest, means you get to control what different people know about you. As countless psychological studies have confirmed, healthy adults edit their self-presentation depending upon their audience. To confirm this observation, think about what, if anything, you would say about a spat with your spouse to your boss, best friend, fitness trainer, neighbor or sister.     

Most kids make similar distinctions offline, but online they let it all hang out. Well, not quite all. If surveys are to be believed, many teens have become relatively savvy about sharing details that might make them vulnerable to predators such as addresses and phone numbers.  Still, posting something they later regret is becoming a rite of passage for young people. A growing number of stories confirm that young people are missing out on everything from scholarships and internships to jobs and even dates because of something indiscreet they posted online.    

Because teens don’t anticipate these problems, some colleges now offer seminars about how to use Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites to create a reputation that won’t make their lives offline more difficult.   Parents can give kids a head start by discussing these questions.     

Who are your friends? Kids are very casual about adding “friends” to their social networks, perhaps because a long list makes them feel popular. Talk about how posting to hundreds of casual friends is like putting the same information on a bulletin board at school. Some personal details should only go to people who have proven themselves trustworthy.

Are you using privacy tools? Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites offer an assortment of tools that allow members to screen their profiles from the general public as well as search engines. They are also introducing filters that will help members give different levels of access to different kinds of friends. To be sure your child understands these options, ask him or her to demonstrate what privacy precautions he or she has taken.    

What do you want your reputation to be? This is a tricky conversation. A teenager may genuinely believe that a reputation for being “hot” or “crazy” matters more than anything else. Parents have to remind teens that life is long and they may not always feel that way. To bring the point into focus, ask how your teen would feel if you posted to a website about your sex life before they were born or your drinking habits in college or even the conversations you have with each other. Remind your teen that he or she wants to get into college, land a good job, find a responsible spouse and maybe even raise a family, so it’s important to get into the habit of imagining how a future employer/spouse/child will feel about what they are posting today. (Mommy bloggers should ask themselves the same questions!)     

Have you searched for yourself? Yes, this is what adolescents do all day, but online, it’s also practical advice. When you are at the computer together, put your child’s name into a search engine and see what pops up. (For convenience, try using Searchboth.com which shows results from both Google and Yahoo on the same screen.) Point out to kids that search engines capture not only what they have posted but also what others have posted about them.      

What can you do about mistakes? Cleaning up a digital footprint isn’t easy. That’s why there are now reputation management companies like Reputation Defender (reputationdefender.com) that help people restore their online reputations. Still, before spending big bucks, try some do-it-yourself tactics like contacting websites to ask (nicely) that they remove problematic materials. Other helpful tips for expunging digital missteps can be found in Not Just Your Space, a free e-book written by Tim Dugan, the young founder of a reputation management company called Naymz. (http://www.naymz.com/blog/?p=32).   

The point of these questions is not to judge the way teens socialize but to get them thinking more carefully about the online impression they are making. Reputation management will be a lifelong challenge for this generation.  Learning good habits early simply means they will be less likely to leave behind footprints they regret and more likely to blaze an online trail they can be proud of even when they are parents themselves.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., is mother to three computer-savvy kids. She has written about families and the Internet for two decades and can be reached on her website www.growing-up-online.com.