3 Ways Teens Can Avoid Costly Social Media Mistakes

Apr 22, 2018

Do your kids know that every time they go online they leave a trail, like cookie crumbs leading from the kitchen to their bedroom? The only difference: these trails of crumbs will never be erased and could either hurt or help them later in life.

Let's take a step back. First, the term "digital footprint" means: "One's unique set of digital activities, actions and communications that leave a data trace on the Internet or on a computer or other digital device and can identify the particular use or device," according to Dictionary.com.

Understanding Your Digital Footprint

In other words: It's what's left behind as you casually browse the web, post on social media or even type into a chat service. The digital footprint that's left behind can have repercussions in all areas of your teen's life, potentially resulting in missed job opportunities, public sharing of personal information, ruined relationships — or, in what is likely more relevant to them right now: Their parents finding out what they've been up to and subsequently being punished.

This is important because teens have grown up with technology all around them—they even use it at school—and are not yet equipped with the knowledge that their actions go far beyond that blog comment or Facebook post they just left.

The perfect example of this is the bittersweet story of 10 Harvard hopefuls whose acceptance offers were revoked after the school uncovered their unseemly social media activity. The Harvard Crimson reports, “students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children.” While the students in question did not intend for their highly inappropriate posts to be seen worldwide, the moral of the story is – nothing is truly private on the internet. And, while this seems like an obvious statement to make, the truth is that kids of all ages are still making mistakes on social media that could affect their future.

Make sure your teen is aware of what their digital footprint looks like and what it means for them now, and further down the line, with these simple talking points.

Social Media Isn’t Going Away

Your digital footprint can negatively impact your teens if they aren't careful. For example:

  • 51 percent of employers found content on social media that caused them to pass on an otherwise good candidate, according to a study by Career Builder. Most common reasons to pass included provocative or inappropriate photos or information (46 percent), bad mouthing a previous company or fellow employee (36 percent) and poor communication skills (32 percent).
  • A survey from Kaplan found that 40 percent of admissions officers visited applicants' social media pages.

This means that what your teen posts online could have a significant impact on their success later in life. While these stats sound threatening, remind your teens: It's not all bad news.

Kids Can Control Their Footprint

Your teen's digital footprint is one hundred percent within their control — making smart choices when online can lead to a positive digital footprint down the line that can help them succeed in college and their career.

When talking to your teen about their digital footprint, give them the following tips:

  1. Always be smart when web browsing

    If you've been looking at something online, almost anyone can see that. Don't visit sites that make you nervous, uncomfortable or unsure about what you're looking at. If you're at school or a friend's house and see someone doing so, tell an adult right away.
  2. Turn on your social media privacy settings

    Facebook hasn't always been forthcoming about their Facebook privacy settings, and have come under fire many times because of it. However, every social site, blog and online profile has privacy settings. The most important of these settings: Make your account private and manually approve any new friends or followers.
  3. Be responsible on social media

    Don't ever disclose personal information, like your address, phone number or bank information. And, most importantly, think before you post. Anything you put online, whether it's a social media upload, a comment on a blog post, or a response in a forum, is public and can be discovered by almost anyone.

Some Things Are Out of Your Control

While teens should know that they can take precautions to reduce the amount of people who can see what they put online, it's important that they also know that the internet is public, and there are some things that will always be out of their control. Some of these things include:

  • Photo uploads
    Any photo that's uploaded online is the property of the website to which you uploaded it. While sites like Facebook may never do anything with that, it's forever online, on their servers, and very much out of your control. Uploading a bad picture and deleting it a few minutes or seconds later doesn't change this.

  • IP Address
    IP (Internet Protocol) addresses are linked to every action on every device that's used to access the internet. Police can use this information to find out what device was being used in a crime and hackers can use it to steal information from your computer or inject a virus. The only way to hide this is to use a VPN, or other technically challenging tactics and software.

Social Media Can Be a Good Thing

While all of this will sound scary to your teen, it's important to remind them that it also presents a great opportunity. A positive digital footprint can bode very well for them in the future. They can use their digital footprint as an opportunity to build their own brand.

In fact, the same Kaplan survey found that a third of admissions officers said they discovered details that showed leadership and interest in community service, which reflected favorably on the applicants.

Some ways to build a positive footprint include participating in professional group forums, maintaining a blog about their interests, and posting schoolwork that they're proud of. Teens can use websites like SoundCloud to upload musical projects or About.Me to feature their best work online.

Investigate Your Own Reputation

Show your kids just what you're talking about by having them Google your name or their own (depending on if they've used the internet enough to return any results); a quick search will likely turn up at least a dozen results of social media profiles, blog posts, and more.

Use this as a way to show them that their digital footprint is very real, even for those who use the internet casually. This activity is not meant to scare them, rather, to show them how transparent the internet is — if they've bullied someone online, or written a nasty blog post, you — and millions of other people — will be able to find it. Parental control software is a great tool to help parents monitor the social networks and internet destinations that their children use.

Download Our Social Media Contract

Agreeing on social media rules is an important step that families can take to inform, educate and guide their teens on responsible internet usage. Download our Social Media Contract to use with your family.

Ultimately, the internet is public, not private and that's the most important takeaway. Their digital footprint will never go away. Remind your teens to treat this as an opportunity to show the best parts of themselves, so if a college admissions officer does "stumble upon" their various profiles, they'll be one step ahead of the rest.