I have a close friend whose teenage son and daughter live in another state. They are very close -- not only because they talk and text every day, but also share comments and photos via Facebook and Twitter.
Twitter can be a nice tool to check the temperature on your teens, but the real-time nature of Twitter as well as its 140-character space restriction can sometimes lead to parents mischaracterizing what is happening with their teens.
Perspective is everything on Twitter, as Stephen Colbert found out recently when a joke from his television show was taken out of context and broadcast on Twitter. The ensuing "Twitstorm" protesting the offending quote resulted in more than 85,000 tweets with the with the #CancelColbert hashtag.
And, while Colbert will survive the controversy, poor behavior on social media could follow your teen on everything from obtaining their first credit card to getting into the college of their choice.
In a headline no parent ever wants to see, the New York Daily News (and a number of other media outlets) reported on the @LIPartyStories Twitter handle, whose main mission seemed to be showing drunk students in various stages of undress partying in the New York suburb of Long Island. Such behavior could have long-term ramifications.
Yes, who your teen is friends with on Facebook could impact their ability to get a future loan. One company, Lenddo, describes itself as having created the "first trustworthiness scoring platform optimized to service emerging markets.
Kreditch is another site that boasts of tracking 10,000 data points and which monitors behavior on a number of sites, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. One piece of advice I give my students at the University of Massachusetts is to make sure to get recommendations on their LinkedIn accounts -- such behavior can only serve to boost your online reputation when it comes to credit sites.
I also tell my students that employers look at social media profiles when hiring, as do college admissions counselors. How much or how little to reveal about oneself is always a balancing act. And when you throw in the impulse-control issues with teens, things get even more complicated.
Sometimes the basic guideline is common sense. Don’t speak negatively of others, you never know who might be looking. In a study released last year, Kaplan Test Prep reported that 29 percent of college admissions officers had conducted a Google search on applicants, while 31 percent reported visiting an applicant’s Facebook or other social networking page to learn more about them.
"Granted, most admissions officers are not tapping into Google or Facebook, and certainly not as a matter of course," said Seppy Basili of Kaplan Test Prep. "But there’s definitely greater acknowledgment and acceptance of this practice now than there was five years ago."
On the flip side, social media can help show admissions officers more of who you are. Blogging about your interests can show a level of depth way beyond an essay. So, what are parents to do?
One simple guideline I tell my students and teens is: "Don’t post anything you don’t want Grandma to see." And I really try to dispel the myth of privacy, for nothing is truly private on the Web.
And Twitter itself provides a solid list of guidelines:
Protect passwords. Passwords should never be shared, not even with friends. And, don’t forget to log out of shared computers! (I’ve made this mistake and had random comments posted on my Facebook page by my kids.)
Keep a healthy life balance. Demonstrate the importance of a balance between online and other activities by encouraging family activities offline.
Encourage critical thinking. Ask questions like: Who are you sharing this information with? Can you trust all the people that see the information on your Twitter account?
Think before tweeting. A basic idea but it fights against the urge to comment immediately. Actions online can have long-term ramifications, today more than ever.
Block and ignore. Unwanted or derogatory posts or tweets should lead to blocking and reporting.
Creating your digital footprint seems to be starting earlier and earlier. And while we as parents want our teens to express themselves and explore technology, the best piece of advice I have for anyone when it comes to social media comes from a presentation I gave five years ago: Use your head.