Not the better choice. Take it down, please.
That’s the short, efficient text message I’ve sent more times than I can count over the years while monitoring and coaching my kids’ online content choices.
My daughter is now a senior in high school with her eyes fixed on college. And while she can take credit for her strong grades and test scores, I will (unapologetically) take credit for influencing her digital reputation, which impacts everything from college applications to scholarships to career opportunities.
Looking back, it hasn’t been easy. There have been arguments. There have been tears. There have been consequences and days I despised the invention of the smartphone. There were other days I watched helplessly as other kids — kids I knew— made choices online that would have long-lasting consequences. Still, our family made it through (mostly) unscathed. Thankfully, my daughter is walking into the next phase of life with a solid understanding of how to shape and manage her online reputation. The best part: I trust her.
If you are frustrated, weary, or just fed up with the daily battle over your child’s online choices and trying to wrangle their daily digital activity, here’s a word of encouragement just for you. You can do this. Stay the course. Be consistent and persistent. Your efforts will be worth it as your kids earn their digital wings and fly without you one day.
6 Tips to Protect Your Child’s Online Reputation
Be a coach, not a critic
The most effective tool you have in your parenting arsenal is building a good relationship with your child. Build your relationship with your child before you throw down the rules. Approach monitoring your child’s digital life as a coach and not as a 24/7 critic. Take the time to understand your child’s favorite apps, their online friend groups, and what they love most about connecting and sharing with others online. Taking the time to understand your teen’s digital life will permit you to be a coach they will listen to (not just a parent throwing out random rules). The secret to connecting with teens? Listen attentively. Teens will talk to adults that they feel want to hear what they have to say.
Help them hone their “knower”
As adults, we have an inner “knower,” or a wise voice that knows the better choice. Kids, on the other hand, have a further to go before their knower, or their conscience takes over. Remember, as intelligent as your child may be, there’s still critical physiological (brain) and emotional (maturity) development taking place. In that process, help your kids to listen to that small inner voice that advises them against unwise choices such as using profanity online, sending racy photos, impulsive comments, or making a snap judgment. Most colleges and employers will think twice before considering a person who is disrespectful or irresponsible online.
Things once considered personal have found their way into the digital mainstream. Don’t assume your kids have the same understanding of modesty or privacy as you. Remember: They take more cues from their peers than you these days. Kids often vent and work out their problems through public posts, which can impact his or her online reputation. Things such as a family crisis, legal issues, or a relationship dispute should not be shared or worked through online. While it may feel right at the moment, over-sharing personal issues can lead to online shaming and deep wounds for a child if bullies and trolls are on the loose. When difficult circumstances arise, encourage your child to log off and talk face to face with you, friends, or a counselor. Online shaming and hate, as captured in the book, Shame Nation, has become an epidemic. Knowing how to avoid online hate begins with coaching kids on sound judgment.
Google it, and revise it
To get a clear picture of your child’s digital footprint and what a school or employer sees, Google your child’s name and piece together the picture yourself. Examine the social networks, links, and sites that have cataloged information about your child. One of the best ways to replace damaging digital information is by creating positive information that overshadows it. Encourage your child to set up a Facebook page that reflects their best self — their values, their goals, and their character. Make the page public so others can easily view it. They may also consider setting up a LinkedIn page that highlights specific achievements, specific goals, and online endorsements from teachings and employers.
Turn off tagging
Like it or not, we all get judged by the company we keep. This hard and fast rule also applies to kids the online world. Your child’s online behavior may get an A+, but reckless friends can sink that grade fast. To make sure your child doesn’t get tagged in risky photos on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, make sure privacy settings prevent tagging or require user approval. Also, encourage your kids to pay more attention to unflattering Snapchat photos and Snapchat story photos that other people post about them that can be problematic if shared elsewhere.
Get proactive & practical
With a few safeguards in place, you can help protect your child’s reputation. 1) Privacy settings. By adjusting privacy settings to “friends only,” mistakes can be minimized. However, we know that anything uploaded can be shared and screen captured before it’s deleted so tightening privacy settings isn’t a guarantee. 2) Parental controls. Your kids may not like having filters on their phone or PC, but like eating vegetables, it’s what’s best for them. By using additional filtering, you could be closing off digital roads and relationships that could be harmful to your child’s reputation. Also, double-check that social settings are marked private.
Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family. (Disclosures).