When you hear about protecting kids online, what first comes to mind are porn, cyber-bullying, viruses and malware, and maybe even creepy adults out to abuse them via cyber–luring.
But we do not give any second thought to online reputation, which might be equally dangerous for your kids.
What your teens do and say online now will serve as a foundation for their online reputation and will affect their future.
Half of the problem: what your teens do
Facebook restricts children below 13 years old from using its social networking site. Even so, you will have to expect that kids will be kids and they will be immature on Facebook. Some even lie about their age, making it appear that all is kosher when in fact they are not even teenagers yet.
Twitter, on the other hand, does not have an explicit age restriction for its users. The microblogging-cum-social networking site simply does not ask.
Kids and teens are not known for their self-restraint. They do not think before they click. For most teenagers, they can easily fire off an offensive tweet if they are angry or claim to do things just to show off – like doing drugs and drinking alcohol. Do not get me wrong, but we have seen judgment lapses even from adults. Who has not heard of Courtney Love harassing some poor designer on Twitter and her string of lawsuits? Or of Lindsay Lohan’s almost nude pictures, and yes, Weinergate? So, if an esteemed US congressman and if celebrities with PR reps and publicists could get into hot water on Twitter, so can your kids.
Social media would be much safer if there was some sort of censorship wherein a software would analyze the content of your tweet and warn you about potential connotations.
Paris Brown is probably wishing for such a censorship button now. Brown was a 17-year-old youth police and crime commissioner in the United Kingdom, a job that paid her handsomely. Until recently, that is.
It was found out that Brown had some nasty tweets on her Twitter timeline. These tweets had a lot of inappropriate language and were often described as homophobic, racist, and downright offensive. Some tweets pointed at drug and alcohol use, and even violence.
The sad thing is that these tweets were mostly from three to four years ago.
Brown has admitted her mistakes and has professed that she was deeply embarrassed by her actions. She also offered an insight that should send a warning to all parents everywhere: she was not the only teenager to do this.
And on that point, she is right. A Daily Mail report in 2012 showed that on an average day, three people are arrested in England and Wales for posting offensive messages.
What you can do:
As with any problem, communication and education are the key to keeping your teenagers’ online reputation clean and free from tarnish.
Equipping them with their own code of conduct is the best way to go about it.
What should you talk to them about?
- Everything you say and post on the Internet stays on the Internet. Most kids think that they can simply erase or hide their posts and photos on social media when they need to. This thinking is wrong. Make them realize that everything they do online leaves a trace that may be unearthed in the future by the police, by potential employers and, yes, even college admissions.
- Twitter, blogging and Facebook can sometimes feel like it is a private thing. You write something for yourself, post it on your account, and it gets out there to your friends. But what kids must realize is that the whole world can get in on the action too.
- Make them aware of what words might be misconstrued as having a negative connotation, considered hurtful, or downright offensive. A single word could paint you as racist or spiteful, even if that is not your intention at all. The downside of Twitter, Facebook, personal blogs, and other online properties is that your words basically define you as most people would have nothing else to judge you by. Talk to your kids about offensive and hurtful words and tell them to avoid using these on social media and on their blogs.
- Ask your kids to go offline if they are emotional. Anger, sadness and other emotions can easily cloud your thinking, so ask your kids to avoid going on social media when they are feeling emotional.
In short, teach your kids to think before they click. This is very important because you cannot just shut them out from the online world. Nor are teenagers very upfront about what they do online. According to Don Reisinger at CNET, 7 out of 10 teenagers are hiding their online activities from their parents. They should be able to decide on their own whether to click on that Tweet! or Update button.
The other half of the problem: how others react
In fairness, this should not really be a problem. Teenagers are not really known for their restraint, right? It is just being childish and people should not take their words at face value. You probably did and said some pretty stupid things when you were a teenager and you still turned out fine. Surely a 140-character missive or a single word will not make you a racist, a homophobe or a slut for life, right?
The sad truth is that there is no stopping other people from reacting strongly to what your teenagers post online. And it is not just future employers, but insurance companies, finance companies and other organizations will also be reading the stuff that your teenagers are posting about themselves. And you cannot do anything to stop them from making a decision based on that.
Sometimes, the impact of a your teenagers’ poor online behavior can immediately affect them. Their own friends can use their own posts, private messages and photos to intimidate, humiliate and ultimately bully – or worse, blackmail – your teens.
What you can do to lessen the impact:
Think before you click is a good idea even in this situation, but there are additional things you could impart to your teens. Such as:
- Have them learn and use privacy controls. Teach your kids about privacy controls on Facebook, how to protect their tweets or how to make their blogs private. This way, if they post something inadvertently damaging to their online reputation, there will be limited access to it and search engines cannot cache them permanently.
- Use tools to help them control their privacy. The good news is that technology is catching up and changing young people’s behavior online. Take for example a new service called SnapChat. SnapChat is a mobile app that allows its users to record a video or photo of themselves and send it to their friends. In a matter of seconds, after a friend has viewed the photo or video, it automatically becomes deleted and inaccessible to him or her. It is as if it did not happen in the first place. If they are more into instant messaging, then have them use BurnNote, which works more or less like SnapChat, only instead of photos and videos, you can send notes.
As parents, we will always need to guide our kids in whatever they do. Ultimately, we have to teach them to be responsible for their actions and that includes guarding their online reputations themselves. Take thetime to properly educate your children about online reputation early on.