This essay originally appeared on BlogHer.
My son came home the other day and told me he heard from his college advisor that colleges now check out various social media sites to determine what kids are posting about themselves and others. I told him not to worry, his grandmother checks his Facebook page everyday to make sure he doesn’t post something he’ll regret. “I knew I shouldn’t have friended her,” he said only half jokingly.
For years now, I (with the help of various relatives) have kept a watchful eye on what my teenage children do on the internet. Our goal was to make sure they didn’t post anything that might reveal to some creep where they live, go to school, and so on. But now I wonder, is it enough? Am I being negligent?
As a self-proclaimed “good mother,” I want to do my best to protect my children. Everywhere now it seems I come across advice on how to ensure my children’s safety online. But I never thought I would hear it from Garrison Keillor. Each morning before I sit down to write, I listen to him read on the Writer’s Almanac what happened this day in the history of literature. After his recitation, I say a prayer, “may the muse find me this day” and soldier on. It’s a bit like rubbing two dimes together for good luck. However, I’ve noticed lately a little ad tacked on to his reading from a new company called Reputation Defender. They promise to offer tools designed to “monitor and protect online reputations.” So, of course, I went to the website and saw the bright shinning face of mother, her arms lovingly wrapped around her son under the headline “Protect Your Online Privacy.” The subtext? You’re not a good mother unless you “remove all personal information” from the internet and do everything you can to keep “stalkers, scammers, and spammers” away.
Back in my day, you just needed soap and water so you could clean off the nasty things written about you on the bathroom wall. Now I learn it’s not just online predators I have to protect my kids from, it’s actually themselves. Children, the argument goes, don’t really understand that the internet is the new herpes: it stays with you forever. When they post images of late night parties, make comments about their frenemies, or simply swear like a sailor, this content they have created goes in to the ether never to be reclaimed. Austen Crowder, a writer for the Bilerico Project and an advocate for gay and lesbian rights argues, “It is far too easy to share too much, and by the time kids realize the damage they’ve done it’s already too late. Kids need to know the First Rule of the Internet – everything posted on the internet is forever.”
Colleges aren’t the only ones getting in on the game. Employers are using the internet to evaluate job applicants. Sana Saleem blogged about journalists who were fired because someone posted photos of a party, someone else blogged about it, and an international scandal was born. Her point? What we do on the internet doesn’t just affect us but it affects others as well.
It makes me think that perhaps WeeWeb, the new site geared towards controlling your child’s web presence from the start may be on the something. Does managing our children’s future require us to mange their internet exposure from the womb onwards? Will entry into Harvard or a job at Google be unavailable to my kids because of something I wrote on BlogHer? Would I have protected my kids future better if I had not posted my kids pictures on Picassa, not blogged about them on my website, not allowed them to use facebook?
All of which comes back to the original question. How do I help my children navigate this wild west realm? The reality is, I don’t know what I don’t know. I try to stay informed and engaged. I do all the new verbs: I facebook. I twitter, I blog, I text. And yet, I have no doubt my kids will be on to the next technology before I can even figure out what it is. My husband sent me this clip on gawker (I gawk, too!) from Saturday Night Live. I think it says it all…
I have come to realize all of this online helicoptering isn’t doing them or me much good. The best thing I can do to protect my children is to teach them to behave responsibly and respectfully online and off and remind them that those good old-fashioned values such as “love they neighbor as thyself” still apply today. Because, I can run around and try to swipe clean their “online reputations,” I can be hyper-vigilant about their social media usage, and I can create world war III in our household by taking away their umbilicus to their friends but in the end connectivity is the new reality. As a good mother, I know I must learn to let go and trust my children. At this point, there really is not much more I can do.
Trust is one thing, but it doesn’t hurt to stay informed:
http://www.wsd1.org/internetsafety/ – great place to start. Make your own decision about what is right and what you can live with. Urban Mama offers a downloadable guide to protecting children Our family uses Common Sense Media as a source for considering which videos, movies, and websites are appropriate.