Internet Behavior is Public Behavior

Public behavior can be defined as anything that is heard, seen, or witnessed by other people in a public place. The problem is that most children do not view the Internet – social networking pages, blogs, chat rooms – as “public.” They are generally alone when they post something and they often feel like their pages are their own private journal. In actuality, content they post is widely circulated, and is likely to live on into their adulthood. This information gets searched, shared, and forwarded. So one of the most important things adults can do to help teens be safe online is to broaden their definition of what is public.

Help teens to “think before posting.”

Teens are not skilled yet at being able to predict the consequences of their actions. They need to think through their behaviors. Ask them if they would feel comfortable with their next door neighbor, doctor, or teacher reading their post. Would they feel okay knowing that their future in-laws could read their posts in later years? Ask them if they believe their posts reflect well on them and their family.

Explain that sharing intimate details or photos online can create future problems. According to a 2008 Kaplan study, one in 10 college admissions officers routinely check out college applicants’ Facebook and MySpace pages. And some 38% of them found posts or pictures that reflected poorly on those prospective students. Prospective employers also surf social networking sites and are equally unimpressed by racy photos or posts that discuss partying. One of the first things attorneys do with a new case is search online for information about plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses alike. Lawyers can use this information – since it is public – in the courtroom against you. Although your teen may think they will never be in a courtroom, remind them that you never know where life will lead you. They may be a witness for a friend, get a speeding ticket, file for divorce, or sue someone else who has wronged them.

More than likely, they have probably never thought about these types of consequences. Plant these ideas and they may be more cautious about their online activity.

Explain that information is permanent.

Many people, and especially teens, have become very casual about putting personal information online. Each individual piece of information doesn’t seem like something important or something that someone could use against you later. The problem is that information is permanent, so it accumulates to provide a very comprehensive picture of your identity. Small details – where you go to school, your financial status, the way you look, the cities you have lived, who your friends are, what scares you – all add up.

Comments, actions or images posted online are permanent, despite your best efforts to delete material. Most deleted information is recoverable by a wide variety of technological services. Additionally, there is no way to tell who else has downloaded or forwarded what you wrote or what information a search engine has crawled and stored. You don’t know who has seen your comments and how they will judge you.

Making the concept even more difficult to impress upon a teenager is the fact that they will rarely feel any immediate negative consequence for giving out personal information. A teen may never realize that there is a connection between something they posted and a later result. The Admissions Director to their favorite graduate school will simply send them a rejection letter, not tell them that they were offended by their Facebook posts when they were a teen. And consider those people who take a wrong turn at some point in their lives and want to start over with a fresh image and direction… it’s much harder when your poor decisions were well-documented on the Internet.

Prevent identity theft.

Teens are very vulnerable to identity theft. Most teens believe that no one will want to steal from them because they don’t have very much money in their bank account. However, most identity theft has nothing to do with stealing what you already have. Criminals are interested in getting a loan using your identity – it has to do with getting you in debt. Teens are vulnerable because thieves realize that teenagers will not be checking their credit history for a long time. Usually, it’s when they go to apply for their first job out of college that they check their credit rating. How devastating to discover that your rating is ruined, you owe money, and it will be almost impossible to fix because it happened years ago. Warn your teens of this possibility so that they will be very careful with the details they share online, and check your child’s credit, just as you do your own.

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