What Teens Should Know About Online Reputations

Many teens are very casual about sharing personal information online because they fail to fully understand the ramifications of doing so. You will rarely feel any immediate negative consequences for giving out information. Much of the time you may never understand that there was a connection between something we, a friend, or family member posted and a consequence that comes later.

Think of a drop of water. When a drop of water lands, it is either absorbed, evaporates, or becomes part of a larger body of water and is indistinguishable from any other drop.

This isn’t the case with online information. Each drop of information is collected into personal virtual buckets. The information rarely disappears; instead, it accumulates, slowly building a comprehensive picture of your identities and lives. Small details about your appearance, where you live, go to school and work, financial status, emotional vulnerabilities, and the lives of those close to you all add up.

Comments, actions, or images once posted online may stay long after you delete the material from your site. You don’t know who else has downloaded what you wrote or what search engine crawled and stored a photo. You can’t know who else sees your comments and judges you by them, nor will you have the opportunity in most cases to explain your comments.

Shedding an earlier image to move in new directions can be harder in a digitally recorded world as your previous postings may make it difficult. For example, if you went through a punk period and now want to be more preppy, that punk past will follow you. Or perhaps there is an old relationship that you do not want to be associated with any longer, but it remains online for anybody to see. Or you had embarrassing moments documented that now won’t go away.

Anyone - those with good intentions as well as those with intent to do harm - can dip into your virtual bucket and search for your information years from now. It may be the admissions director at a school to a potential employer, or your future children or in-laws. The person dipping into your information bucket could be an identity thief, or anyone in your life who wants to use something you’ve posted to lash out at you, can cause harm. What seemed like a good idea to post at one time may come back to bite you in a variety of ways.

The flip side to negative permanence is positive permanence. If what you are documenting helps establish your positive reputation and credentials and helps people learn great things about you (without revealing too much in the way of personal identification), you’re on a path to be proud of. As future employers, loan officers, school administrators, friends, family, and coworkers look over your history they will be pleasantly surprised to find your pages filled with positivity – as long as what you wrote is true.

Everyone has both positive and negative thoughts and actions. The difference is in what you choose to document – and what others choose to document about you. So think before you act and post. It is far easier to think twice about a negative or embarrassing action or comment and refrain from following through than it is to try to take it back or down once it is documented on an online source.

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