Sarah Kessler’s timely article, The perfect graduation gift: A $100 widget to scrub social media accounts of embarrassing posts on Quartz.com brings up an important topic, helicopter parents who are being enticed to land on social media.
If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, then the article's featured image is worth about a million. The image shows three college kids holding a boy up while he does a keg stand. The kids are smiling. Behind them, the littered lawn makes it looks like a raucous tailgating session has just ended. The article informs readers that companies are targeting parents' fears about their kids' inevitable mistakes on social media, offering social media clean up services that scrub away posts that would be embarrassing to future employers or colleges to see. For $100, parents can wipe away the racially inappropriate tweets that their kids might have posted, delete the pictures of them drinking and smoking, and remove posts that are sexually explicit.
Makes sense, right? Not to me.
To begin with, nothing on the Internet ever goes away. Paying for online reputation management is a superficial measure at best: it makes it harder to find inappropriate images, but not impossible and it does not address the real problem.
Aside from the fact that posts are permanent and discoverable, there are two real issues brought to light: accountability and control.
It is easier for parents to clean up their kids' social media than to teach them how to use the technology they have provided in the first place. Yes, it is hard to see your child fail, get rejected, or not achieve something they want - but sending the message that you can “delete” bad behavior is plainly wrong.
Congressman J.C. Watts’ infamous quote speaks to this problem. “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.”
Teaching our kids that they only need to care about getting caught sends the wrong message. The message should rally our kids to be smart and accountable on social media in the first place, no matter who is looking. If you post something racist, homophobic, violent, or intolerant, you need to be held responsible. Sorry, that is the way it is. Your employer, college, landlord, future spouse - all deserve to know who they are hiring, admitting, renting to, or dating.
Scrubbing an account might put a band-aid on the issue of social media, but if you are willing to send offensive tweets, you are probably going to demonstrate the same in your offline behavior. Character flaws are not easily deleted.
After parents provide their child a phone, they lose a great deal of control. They can't monitor every comment, 'like', account, or friend that their kid engages with online. If those terms are not acceptable to parents, they shouldn't give their kid a device that allows communication with the world.
Like everything else, education is the key: we need to give our kids social media training on how to behave on social media. Before and after handing them a phone, we need to educate kids how to conduct themselves online pragmatically. Communicating on social media is normal, expected, and completely acceptable, but let’s impart the rules of engagement first.
Kids need to know that no matter what anyone says, or what parents pay for, their posts are permanent and ultimately discoverable.
This piece of information may cause kids to think twice before they post. If after being informed about the rules of engagement they still post inappropriate content, then they should suffer the consequences. Hopefully, they will learn to pick themselves up and change their behavior. And, by the way, no one is expecting perfection. Very few employers or admissions officers expect that their applicants have never attended a party or posted something they were unhappy with later.
Whenever I am tasked with a parenting dilemma, I refer to Julie Lythcott Haims' book, How to Raise An Adult. Julie has a checklist of essential life skills that kids need to possess to be successful:
“If we want our kids to have a shot at making it in the world as eighteen-year-olds, without the umbilical cord of the cell phone being their go-to solution in all manner of things, they’re going to need a set of basic life skills. Based upon my observations as dean, and the advice of parents and educators around the country, here are some examples of practical things they’ll need to know how to do before they go to college."
Julie goes on to list the skills necessary to raise an adult. To her excellent list, I would like to add one more core proficiency: An eighteen-year-old must know how to own their digital identity.
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