When I was 14 I was convinced I wanted to be goth. I raided Hot Topic for leather pants, wore gobs of black liner and white powder and—dare I say it—I may have even bought a glittery dog collar. This lasted for an entire two weeks before I decided that I missed wearing colors. Plus, my eyes were exhausted from all the eye-rolling that being goth required. But I got it out of my system pretty safely, and this period in my life is now simply a funny memory shared at weddings and family reunions. The only real evidence is a few photos tucked away in dusty photo albums (and my best friend’s relentlessly good memory and merciless teasing).
I shudder to think what would have happened if Facebook had been around then. Not only would the photos have been uploaded, shared and saved on my profiles, but my temporarily goth friends would have posted the pictures from our impromptu “Queens of Darkness” shoot. I never would have been able to get rid of them.
Teens today are becoming more and more aware of the permanence of their postings. The digital world has radically changed how teens communicate, socialize and view themselves. One of young people's biggest challenges is experimenting with their identity in public social spaces like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Vine. Teens need to experiment with how they look and who they are—that's part of growing up! However, social media are limiting teens’ flexibility and freedom in exploring their self-identity.
In fact, this past summer on the Radical Parenting teen forums I noticed that as teens discussed the approaching school year, their conversations were littered with phrases like “brand management,” “relaunching my personal brand” and “managing online followers.” Teens are beginning to discuss and approach their online reputations much like companies. They worry about their brand being consistent across profiles and posts. They test posts for “virality,” trying to optimize likes, comments and shares with subsequent posts. They expect to “relaunch” for the school year.
This is an interesting symptom of the digital age.
On the one hand, it’s good news. Teens are finally getting the message: Their postings are seen by a lot of people and might last forever in the digital space. So they are being way more careful about what they post.
On the other hand, it’s bad news. Teens are unable to experiment. Or worse, they do experiment and then are stuck with something that is no longer relevant. It’s also a huge burden for teens. Online reputation management was one of the top five things teens were stressed about during the 2013 back-to-school season. They feel they have to constantly check in to manage what people are saying or posting about them. Teens also feel pressured to find fresh or exciting things to post about.
How can parents and adults help teens balance their online brand with their offline life? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Talk to them about this idea. Teens found tremendous relief on the forums when they realized that other teens were feeling the same pressure about their profiles and personal branding. Let teens know they are not alone.
2. Discuss the good and the bad. One way adults unknowingly push teens away from them is when they approach only the negative side of an issue. Talk to teens about both the pros and cons of social media and online reputations. This will help you explore with them and understand what is going on for them—every teen is in a slightly different place on the spectrum of online activity.
3. Stress the importance of authenticity. One of the scary aspects of online brand management is that teens can sometimes try to present ideal or false versions of themselves. They create a profile of who they wish they were instead of who they actually are in hopes of impressing people. Talk to your teen about the importance of being authentic and being yourself.
Teens are not the only ones struggling with these online reputation issues. Think about how you manage your online brand, and consider opening up to your teens about your own struggles so they know they’re not alone. Because the Internet is not going away, and neither is this issue.