We talk to parents all the time about what their kids and teens are doing online. The answers we get are varied, but many are of a theme that comes up all too often:
- “Ashley doesn’t use social media.”
- “Danny doesn’t use Facebook.”
- “Well, I know Braden is on Facebook but he friended me so I can see everything he is doing.”
Once a child reaches 14 or 15, the truth is usually something very different, whether parents are fully aware or not. A lot of parents think social media begins and ends with Facebook. It doesn’t. There are dozens of social media networks around, with new ones popping up every week. Some parents also think online activity happens primarily on a child’s desktop or laptop computer, but many teens are using social media mostly or exclusively on their phones.
When we conduct an audit on a teen, we usually find half a dozen or so spots online where he has an identity, either on websites or social media – and often the number is much higher. A teen’s total online identity, rather than the presence on any one particular site, is what’s most important.
If you say to a kid, “who are you?” he knows the answer and can tell you all about himself. But when a college admissions officer, college athletic coach, a first potential employer or even the police ask that themselves that question, it’s important that a teen’s online presence projects the public image that shows him in the best light.
For example, a college admissions officer will be looking at:
Academics – Course work, grades and test scores
Accomplishments – Athletics, extra-curricular activities and community service
Character – Who you really are
If your son has done his college application thoroughly, his academics and accomplishments will be very clearly laid out, but we haven’t yet seen a college application that includes the question, “Are you a good person?” In today’s era of the Internet and social media, the character part is open to the interpretation of the viewer admissions officer, who will be free to use any and all online content on the applicant to make his character determination.
Having an online identity that makes you look lazy, frivolous, mean-spirited, racist, bigoted or a possessing a host of other negative traits can be devastating. One’s online image can be improved, or kept pristine from day one, but it is no trivial task. All teens, with the help of their parents, must consider each of the following about their online image:
Content and conduct – What you are posting online and what it says about you to an observer.
Friends – Who you interact with online (and what they do and say) also says something about you.
Frequency – How often do you post online? Is the amount of time you spend online crowding out other more important activities?
Things posted about you by others – Have a plan for knowing when others are posting about you, and what you can do about it. Talk to your friends about not making negative posts about you, even in jest, and think carefully before adding people to your network who aren’t really friends.
Ancient history – Are there social media accounts that you’ve forgotten about or don’t use anymore? They’re probably still around.
Privacy settings – Set most of your social media accounts to private, but not all of them. If you are 100% private, you may look like you have something to hide. (Hint: leave Facebook set to public, since your parents are probably watching you there anyway, and set up a clean and professional looking LinkedIn account). If, on the other hand, all of your accounts are public, you won’t have enough control over your online image.
Consistency with your college goals – Pro tip: With your public Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, the ones that your grandma could look at and smile, post things that express some consistency with your college or career goals. If your college app says that you’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian, and your online image is totally devoid of animals, you’re putting yourself at risk.
There is no foolproof way to be online and dodge all the potential pitfalls, but a little time and effort can put you in good stead to avoid most of them. Going the extra mile to craft a public online image that answers the “who are you?” question in the most positive light is biggest favor you can do for yourself online.
Rob Zidar is ThirdParent’s co-founder and executive vice president of operations. ThirdParent specializes in Internet safety for teens and kids- providing discreet, professional online monitoring and reporting services to equip parents with the tools and resources needed to proactively safeguard the privacy and reputation of their kids online. As an online reputation management and Internet safety expert, Rob is frequently sought after by the media and organizations to speak to parents and teens about online security and reputation management. Outside of ThirdParent, Rob is a father of three and lives with his family in Montgomery Township, N.J.