Parents & Teens Beware: like diamonds & tattoos, social media posts are forever

gaming and social mediaSeemed like a good idea at the time…

Two recent Skype incidents remind us of the dangers of social media and the “instant age.”

One, an offensive albeit private joke ignorantly shared online, the other a deliberate spamming via Skype messaging remind us that parents can and should be aware of their teen student’s social media activities. Here are some warnings and suggestions, starting with the idea that with social media, private is never really private.

Likes, Moods, Tweets & Eternal Connectedness

You may have heard about how one Facebook “like” can expose a supposedly private account to a viral world (see CBS article on Five Hidden Dangers of Facebook)

And you have probably seen the news that broke recently about The Bong Hit That Cost an NFL Prospect 8 Million.  It wasn’t the use of the drug that cost him $8mm, it was the picture of it that ended up on Twitter on the biggest day of his life – 7 years after the picture was taken. Oops.

Little Mistakes

Two recent Skype events highlight for me these dangers.

The first has a happy ending. A student in our A+ Club academic program set his Skype “mood” to a lurid and racist phrase that he and a friend had been thoughtlessly joking about. When one of our tutors logged on to help him out with his math, she very correctly refused to work with him.

He and his parents were enormously embarrassed by it, and he wrote an appropriate and heartfelt apology. Still, he will never be able to work with that tutor, a caring, amazingly talented teacher, again. Sure, he can find other math help, but if the behaviors weren’t caught early and the lesson not learned, he and trouble were going to meet at some point, likely without his even knowing it. He knows it now.

The other Skype incident was deliberately malicious and imposed itself upon innocents who weren’t even looking. While at a dinner a recent Saturday night, my phone went off crazy with notifications. It was on silent but buzzing constantly. I excused myself and took a look at it in private and found that my Skype notifications were loaded with obscene and deliberately offensive messages.

I’d never seen any of this type of language before, but I was more offended that I was not able to stop the notifications. Amidst the lewd messages were others pleading, “get me off this!” “stop sending this!”  I realized then that I was the subject of some spam attack along with others. The problem was that I couldn’t turn it off.

A very direct, shall we say, conversation with Skype customer support revealed that any connected Skype account holder can bring in other Skype users to “group messages,” which cannot be opted out from without changing underlying settings.

I reported the offender and changed my settings to not allow automatic group messaging. Turns out that the offender was a student who had inquired about help some time ago and with whom I had spoken by Skype.  Gone and never back.

Zero Tolerance for Social Media Foolery

Kids may not know the impact of their social media postings because they may never hear from the offended person, college admissions officer, or employer. Parents, siblings and peers need to intervene early in order to protect against later troubles.

While working with the White House Transportation Agency on its history (see my post, First Presidential Auto on Display on National Mall) I brought a few students to see the “White House Garage.” Among the many and strong impressions the students came away with was that no soldiers who drive for the White House have any blemishes on their social media postings. They may not have been the best students, but they were always appropriate and respectful and they left behind no trace of foolery. The Agency told us that they turn down applications all the time because of Facebook and Twitter posts.

The Rule: Social Media Posts Are Indelible

It’s not about not offending people. If you believe in something, if you truly mean it, say it. But understand that, like a tattoo that you might later regret, the moment you said it might be forever.

And whatever you say, keep it appropriate. You can be forceful and opinionated without being offensive. Your message will be more powerful for it.

Parents can control social media

Parents can manage their teens’ social media postings. My strategy was to require that my children “friend” their grandmother on Facebook. I didn’t want any part of it, but my mother reported back regularly on what was going on — and intervened immediately with anything that was out of line.

You can help your child feel comfortable and free to be him or herself without compromising your oversight. Be clear and firm, and, as Ronald Reagan famously said, “trust but verify.”

– Michael