As with any reputation, an child online reputation formed during one's adolescence can haunt for years to come. It is imperative that you and your child have an open conversation about the possible repercussions of Internet interaction before any lasting damage occurs.
While most future employers are apt to excuse your son or daughter for teenage follies, not all are guaranteed to be understanding or forgiving. Content posted to the Internet does not usually "expire", so forming good online habits and a good online reputation is essential. These habits should start early, and will be more likely to become ingrained in your child.
Several recent studies have outlined the harmful effects of inappropriate online content. A study of hiring managers conducted in June 2009 found that 45% did online background checks using Google and other search engines (more than double the 22% who did so last year), and of those, a full 35% had disregarded a candidate based upon online content found in a search. The job-forfeiting content included provocative or inappropriate photographs or information (53%), content involving drugs or alcohol (44%), and numerous instances of work-related information being over-shared.
Most notably, the survey found that the number of employers researching candidates online had not only doubled from the previous year, but that another 11% planned to begin doing so in the near future. In some industries, as many as 63% of employers were screening potential candidates online, including searching for their blogs and even following them on Twitter.
At this rate, by the time your child reaches adulthood (or even their first after-school or summer job), it seems likely that nearly every employer will use these techniques to help filter candidates, and with an already competitive job market, your children need to demonstrate good judgment and propriety online. One employer reported rejecting a candidate after reading that among his hobbies, he "like(s) to blow things up." To your child, this might seem funny or cool. To a potential employer – or college admissions counselor – this is a deal-breaker.
Unlike with an offline reputation, where memories fade over time, an online reputation is quite literally a permanent record, with content displayed in forever, often even information you've tried to remove. An off-the-cuff remark is likely to be forgotten in time, but photos, videos and online content can remain indefinitely. Children today simply don't view privacy in the same way as those who didn't grow up communicating and sharing via the Internet. Many feel compelled, via peer pressure or societal norms, to share intimate details of their lives online, and as such, with perfect strangers.
In addition to impacting educational, career, and social prospects, from an outside perspective, a bad online reputation can have a harmful effect on one's self-esteem. There have been several high-profile cases where online harassment, and the resulting sense of an irrevocably tarnished reputation, resulted in personal tragedy.
While instances like these are extreme, and hopefully rare in occurrence, it is not uncommon for online content to be taken wildly out of context and either be harmful from an external or personal perspective. You would be wise to discuss this with your child well before their online behavioral habits are formed.
You should regularly perform a search of your child online and see what appears in the results. If your child has a common name, you may need to sift through the data (or add additional search terms like city, nicknames, etc.) to find out which references pertain to your child and which may relate to someone else entirely. If possible, ask to see their Facebook and MySpace accounts – or become their online friend – and see what they have posted. Do you see the normal musings of a child or teenager? Are there provocative photos, statements, or videos? Does your child maintain a blog, or do his / her friends, and what does it say? Does it contain identifying information, such as their school or your town, city, or state? Once you find the content (and chances are nearly certain that there is some), you need to evaluate what you're looking at and decide if this is acceptable to you and your family.
Unfortunately, some parents will learn that their children have already developed a poor or questionable online reputation – either through their own actions or those of their friends and peers. If you find yourself in this situation, don't panic. There are a number of steps you can take to remedy the situation and reinstate your child's good standing online.
First, now that you've identified the sources, catalogue them so you can remedy them one by one. If your child is the one who has posted the content, this is actually helpful, as it gives you more control over the content and you can remove it more easily to manage your or their online reputation. This includes blog postings, status messages, tweets (from Twitter), pictures, videos, and links on Facebook or MySpace, pictures on blogs or photo sharing sites, videos on YouTube or Google Video, and content and media on personal blogs and personal websites.
While it can take a few weeks for Google to remove references to this content from its search results, you can immediately remove access to it from anyone who may have saved direct links (and hope the information hasn't been duplicated elsewhere).
Next, help your child navigate and tighten the privacy settings on his or her Facebook account. Restrict viewing of their page to friends-only, and check back regularly to ensure that they haven't opened viewing to the general public.
Lastly, know that while a lot of content stays on the web, it's possible to bury it underneath "good" content. Does your family maintain a blog? Can you write a few wholesome stories? What about family photos depicting your child in an age-appropriate fashion? Encourage your child to upload family photos and innocuous photos with friends, attending school events and participating in sports teams into their Facebook accounts.
Once you and your child establish good online habits, they're easy to maintain, and with time, it will take a pretty determined sleuth to find older content buried beneath the more recently updated, and more appropriate, information.
While there aren't many laws to specifically address the issue of online reputations, there are resources out there to help. Cyber-bullying laws are becoming more prevalent throughout the nation, as lawmakers work to fine-tune the legal system especially following Megan Meier's suicide. Additionally, the Child Online Protection Act seeks to protect children from viewing unwanted content, which could include inappropriate content involving your minor child. Internet service providers are usually eager to work with parents if it means removing inappropriate content involving a minor.
- Child Online Protection Act
- Your local police department and/or school district
- Forty-five Percent of Employers Use Social Networking Sites to Research Job Candidates", Career Builder, (Aug. 19, 2009)
- For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Résumé", New York Times, (Jun. 11, 2006)
- Parents: Cyber Bullying Led to Teen's Suicide ", ABCNews.com, (Nov. 19, 2007)