Good Digital Parenting
Blog | Oct. 23, 2018

Having a Heart-to-Heart About Online Reputation

Staff Assistant, Family Online Safety Institute

For most parents, it would be horrifying to find explicit or offensive content on their child’s public page or profile for everyone else to see. A parent wants what’s best for their child, and surely, they want their kids to personify the values they’ve imparted on them.

Mistakes happen and children and teenagers sometimes post certain information that should otherwise not be public. I was one of those teenagers that, in rebellious efforts, made statements through comments, pictures, or other digital gestures, that certainly didn’t reflect the values my parents taught me growing up. Thankfully, most of it was humorous and never amounted to graphic or violent content. And, since then, I continue to feel uncomfortable when my friends, or acquaintances, post information online that is distastefully TMI (“too much information”). And that visceral feeling is a reminder that personality, character, and reputation are not only judged by how you present yourself in the physical world, but in the digital one as well.

If your child decides that their post does not represent them anymore, they can delete the post. Unfortunately, anything that goes online will stay online, even after being deleted. The “privacy settings” and other tools that make users feel more at ease when deciding to share information only grant us a false sense of security. Smart phones and other digital tools were not necessarily designed with privacy in mind. Even if your child or teen takes extra precaution when sharing information that (s)he thinks is private, their information could always leak. That is because whether publicly or privately, information shared over digital means will always have a way to become widely accessible. A screenshot can be taken, phones can be stolen, and passwords can be hacked.

That’s why talking to your kids about what they initially share online is just as important as discussing the basic precautions on how to safely maintain personal information while online. Besides, the conversation about online reputation has other benefits for children that you may have not thought of before:

Helps craft the foundations for their personal identity sooner

For starters, this conversation can help strengthen the parent-child bond as they discuss the makings of their identity. For any developing mind, understanding who they are can be a contentious and challenging question. But frequent conversations initiated by those who love and support them the most is a way to help young people answer questions about who they are and who they want to become.

Awareness about social cues and norms

Because our digital presence becomes an extension of our identity, children should become aware that their online actions have consequences. Online activity can have a malicious effect when the person behind an aggressive Tweet or comment feels physically distant from the recipient. However, children should realize how their digital messages could be perceived and interpreted by a wider audience. This is also an opportunity for parents to teach their children how living out their values and ethics also extends to their online behavior.

Makes them think about their future more in depth and learn personal accountability

A positive online reputation is now an integral part of achieving many goals in a young person’s life. So, talking about the impact and the technological tools that children have at their disposal can be what makes a difference in the long run. As children prepare to try out for a team, a play, and especially when applying for college, they should be aware of how their digital representation lines up with their goals. Parents can lend a guiding hand when talking about what their child envisions for her or his future. If your child’s online image doesn’t do them justice, help them understand why that comment is hurtful, why that picture is rude, and let them learn the responsibility that comes with such tremendous access to information and communication.

The conversations parents have with their children and teenagers surrounding the pitfalls of online activity are as important as any other educational conversation you will have with them. If only my sweet old parents knew back then, maybe—just maybe—I could have avoided some pretty embarrassing posts.