Managing Online Identities

It almost sounds like multiple personality disorder, but the reality is that we all present different faces to different audiences. For teens, the face they present to teachers, parents or other adults with authority over them is much different then who they are with their friends. For adults, it’s the same — you’re not the same person with your boss as you are when you’re complaining about work to your colleagues. What’s different about the internet is that teens and many adults are having these conversations online, where they can be discovered, forwarded or printed out. What used to be a bunch of girls gossiping “behind closed doors” is now chronicled on MySpace or Facebook.

Because of this, it’s very important for parents to talk to teens about managing their online identities. Here are some simple talking points parents can use to talk about this issue.

If it’s purely social, use increased privacy settings. Part of the fun of social networking is communicating digitally with the same friends teens see at school or are keeping in touch with. It’s also occasionally meeting someone new. Teens can adjust their privacy settings so that only their friends can see their profile. They can still accept new friend requests but they will avoid people stumbling upon conversations, photos or inside jokes meant for friends vs. everyone. You have to warn them that even if these profiles are private, there is always a chance a photo can be copied and pasted somewhere else.

Google yourself. Have your teen Google him or herself to see what pops up. They may discover other people have been talking about them or that a photo they thought was just for friends ended up on someone else’s blog. It’s a good exercise to make sure they realize that potential employers or recruiters will do this to, and to begin taking an active role in managing their online reputation. This may mean sending an email asking someone to take something down or figuring out how to make sure that entry gets buried in search results.

Launch a portfolio site. Suggest that your teen launch his or her own portfolio site to present a more professional identity to the world. They can upload artwork, writing, post their resume and keep a blog about whatever they might be interested in studying or pursuing. The goal is to get them to begin thinking about their professional identity. And by keeping a public portfolio and blog, this content will most likely rise to the top of Google searches, pushing down less desirable references. The more positive content they can put out online about themselves the better.

By engaging with teens about this topic early, you may be able to prevent them from having to learn the hard way when something pops up they never thought would go beyond their circle of friends. It’s a life skill for the 21st century. If young people are going to have public personaes that can be copied, pasted, mashed up and manipulated, they need both a thick skin and the skills to manage their reputations — both personal and professional online.

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