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Tweens, Teens and Screens:
Their “Online” Life IS Their “Offline” Life

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Young Asian woman drinking wine and using smartphone on white background

Summer is here! This means long, hot days spent hanging with family and friends, vacations with loved ones, and for many who are getting ready to go off to college or graduate next year…it means a summer full of making ALL the memories! 

Often times this means your teens are documenting everything they are doing. While this can be wonderful to look back on as a fun memory later, not every memory needs to be shared online.  At school conferences, starting in middle school, I always ask these questions of my students, “Is your online life your offline life?  Does what you do online reflect who you are offline?  And what does your online life say about you?”  We start each conference with that question and then end it with the same questions.  Why?  Because often, after we spend some time together, the answer will change. 

Many times teens will tell me that even if their online life or “posts” look different from what or who they are in person, that it doesn’t matter.  They say the “real” them is the one we see in person.  However, they feel daily, immense pressure to fit in or look a certain way online.  Many times this pressure can lead to them acting or posting things they typically would not post. 

The desire to want to be “seen” can lead to misguided video posts, or inappropriate pictures.  Sometimes peer pressure or what I like to call “pack mentality” can lead to hurtful comments.  The frightening reality is that ALL of these things, once online, live there forever.

In today’s society, with the ease of a screen shot or a quick video of a video (yes…it happens…a lot), and then a click of the button “repost”, teens find themselves sitting in a space that doesn’t represent who they really are. 

However, for college recruiters, potential employers, and people who award scholarships…the online life that they see paints a picture of their candidate.  Ideas of who the teen may be are formed before he or she is ever interviewed.  One of the first things that recruiters do before making an offer is to research a candidate’s online footprint.  While this may feel unfair, as it doesn’t always give an accurate representation of who that person is, it is the harsh reality of where we are today. At the click of a button, anyone can do a quick Google search and form a fast opinion.  And many times, if that digital footprint is shining a negative light on the teen, they lose a job or college opportunity before it is even offered.

These are the reasons why it is incredibly important that we start having open conversations with our kids about this, as early as middle school.  Discuss with them that what they put online creates a digital footprint.  That every post, every picture, every video, every comment tells a story of their life.  It represents who people think they are offline.  Help your child to understand the difference between inappropriate and appropriate content.  We do not want to stifle creativity, but we do want to make sure that we are diligent in monitoring what is being put out there for the world to see. 

Ask your child these questions: “Are you proud of what your online life says about you?” “Would you make any changes?” “What can we do better?” “What are we doing well?” “How do you think others (recruiters, employers) are going to interpret your online activity?”  “Does your online activity support any future goals you may have?” 

Last, but not least, I ask students,  “If I were to run into you on the street, would your online life look like the person standing in front of me?  Would it look like you, talk like you and act like the real you?”  If not, then it may be time to evaluate what we are doing online, and make sure it represents us in a manner that makes us proud. 

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Kristi Bush serves as a national education consultant and social media safety advocate. She is a licensed social worker with greater than 15 years of clinical practice and health care experience. She attended Troy and Auburn University where she studied social work and counseling. Kristi travels nationally and has spoken with thousands of children, parents, professionals and organizations about the benefits and threats associated with social media. You may reach Kristi through her website at www.knbcommunications.com.

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