The Real Threat Online

Hi Folks! Wow, leave your blog for one little day and the talk turns to porn. I feel like the Free-Range Parent of a blog.

Anyway, I was in D.C. at the Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference and it was fantastic to be among all sort of bigwigs from places like Yahoo and Disney and BT and TimeWarner, all listening to panelists putting online fear into perspective.

As far as kids go, the biggest danger online is not predators (just like predators aren’t the biggest risk off-line, either, in what we quaintly used to call the “real world”).  No, the thing I realized I have to sit down with my kids and talk about is “reputation management.”

Maybe this is blindingly obvious to everyone else, but it struck home with me: When we were young, the stupid things we did lived on maybe in our diaries. Maybe we’d hear about them again at reunions. But this generation’s stupidities do not die, they pixelate. Post a picture of yourself holding a beer — or anatomical part — and even if you think it is never going to go beyond the friend or two you sent it to, you just never know.

It’s hard to make kids think about the future impact of a dump profanity or pajama party picture.  But if we parents frame it in terms of something they’re really aiming for — a team, a scholarship, a future boyfriend or girlfriend  — they’ll take some note.

As Anne Collier, co-director of, put it: “Kids need to be their own spin doctors now. Even ‘private’ profiles are pretty public. If your children are going to post a lot of photos of themselves and blog about innermost thoughts or gossipy stuff about friends, they need to be aware that ‘privacy’ is highly relative. Friends can copy anything kids post and paste them anywhere they want (and turn into former friends).  That means teaching our kids to do a little critical thinking about what ‘everybody’ — including school administrators, potential employers, and Grandma — would think about what they’re posting.”

…It’s after school now and I just tried doing that with my 13-year-old, by the way. It wasn’t a fun conversation, but I’m glad we had it. Along with the birds and the bees we’ve got a new topic now: Bytes.

For more sane advice about youth and tech, visit Anne’s website, and — Lenore

43 Responses

  1. Hi Lenore,

    One problem is that “other people” can make things up about you on the net and it gets copied and put on other websites. Your reputation may have nothing to do with you at all…

    I know a case where somebody posted false information about “who” the inspiration was for a character in a sleazy movie. And he didn’t post it just anywhere. He posted it on Wikipedia. Now – years later – even though the posting has been corrected, other websites still show this guys name.

  2. Finally! I’ve been saying this for years. It’s not just kids, this is also a problem for a lot of 20 something’s I know. Another online kids need to learn about: sharing personal info online makes them much more vulnerable to identity theft… Een before they understand what a “credit history” is.

    I think part of the problem is a Loy of PARENTS don’t fully understand how public these sites are. It’s hard to talk to your kid about facebook when you’re too intimidated to have a facebook account yourself.

  3. Oy. Typos. Lots. Sorry.

  4. I tell my students the same thing. One thing I have them do is google my name. Posts I made before they were born come up. It makes an impression.

  5. danah boyd is my favorite expert, by far, on how teenagers navigate online spaces, and one of the points she makes is that one of the driving forces behind the enormous use of them by teens is that teens’ opportunities for meeting face-to-face are so limited these days, by limited transportation in some cases, but also by adult paranoia and control. Interactions that in the past might have happened face to face (and left no record) have to happen online because teenagers may not have any other way to meet each other.

  6. (In other words, teens’ online reputation is a Free Range issue.)

  7. My brother, although of age (21+) almost didn’t get a job because of some “party” photos he had on Facebook. And he is a lot more mature than a 12 year old so I can only imagine the bad decisions they make online. That is very scary indeed.

  8. I’ve read about people having real world repercussions for stupid things they’ve blogged about. For instance, a nursing student kicked out of nursing school for blogging negative opinions about a patient. A teaching student getting denied her teaching credential for appearing drunk in some online photos. Things like that.

  9. I definitely think that self-editing online is important. Regardless of how “private” a website claims to be, a potential employer (or boyfriend/girlfrend/in-laws) can probably track down pictures of wild parties or blog posts criticizing a boss or gloating about inappropriate or illegal activities.
    I’ve heard of a lot of jobs and colleges/grad schools and scholarship organizations either rejecting or seriously questioning applicants based on online activity (or proof of activity, ie pictures and blogs), never mind people getting fired because of blogs etc.

    Yeah, it’s good to teach kids to be smart about safety on the internet (though I’ve noticed that most child predators are caught on the internet by police officers posing as children), just like it’s good to teach kids to be smart about safety in the “real world” (always have a backup plan, know who to ask for help, etc). But it’s just as important to teach self-editing. Blogs, myspace/facebook pages, and the sort can be a good way to communicate — but maybe a paper-and-pen journal (or password-protected word document) would be a better way to deal with emotions and react to peer/teacher/parent interactions. A future boss won’t care so much if the “I hate my parents and want to blow up my school” myspace post was written during a melodromatic phase at thirteen — it might keep someone from getting a job.

  10. Any kid that meets up with an online ‘predator’ is a kid that has some preexisting problems. I can’t imagine my daughters ever doing anything so inane. I totally trust them, actually…

  11. I had just seen something about this a month or so ago and sent it to both my kids (tween and just barely teenaged). One thing to remember is that something you posted when you were 11 might come up with on a Google search, and the college admissions officer or future employer might not realize the person was 11 when he wrote it.

  12. I agree with the “guard your personal information” thing, but more for the ramifications of a snooping boss or coworker than for things such as identity theft.

    I say this because online identity theft is actually relatively rare: only 11% of identity thefts are done via online methods ( Nearly half were from theft of physical paperwork or wallets (aka – dumpster diving for your discarded credit card offers).

    Consider this:
    Many people are paranoid about using their credit card information for an online purchase, but think nothing of handing their physical card to a waitress, who then walks out of sight to make the transaction, which is done over a network of some sort (often piggybacking on the Internet itself).

    Many people talk about not giving out personal information to anyone/anything online, yet most people’s name, address, and phone number are listed in a telephone book AND that information is routinely sold to telemarketers and advertising agencies.

    How many documents contain your name, address, phone number, maiden name (if you have one), social security number, and/or driver’s license number? For starters, any document that you had to submit to the government and your employer when you started your job will have enough information on it for someone to easily steal your identity. Every piece of mail you’ve ever sent or received will have your name and address on it. Your phone number will show up on any phone with caller ID, and your name and address can be attached to it via a reverse phone lookup.

    Like other crimes, nearly half of ID theft victims knew the thief. In the case of child identity theft cases, the most common thief was the child’s parent.

  13. There is a benefit to what people post online. Many crimes have been solved or stopped because of kids either planning or bragging about what they are about to do or did. Some Columbine like incidents were spotted ahead of time and the kids arrested because it was on a social networking site like myFace. The Columbine kids also posted online but it was seen too late because it was on one of those obscure personal web site blogs that only is looked at if you have the address.

    I have some poetry online that unfortunately is on a personal web site that when the web service was sold, no longer allowed editing of the pages to remove the content. This is a reminder to try again to see if I can delete some quotes that may be seen as a negative to an employer.

  14. Man, and I didn’t think that parenting in the 21st century could get any more complicated [sigh] Y’all might have seen it a while back, but a town in Montana was requesting usernames and passwords to all social networking sites on their employment applications (they later revised that form after public backlash). More and more employers are beginning to look at Facebook, MySpace, etc to see what kind of shenanigans their current or prospective employees might be up to. And thanks to some states being right to work (like Texas), you can get fired for whatever reason and they don’t have to tell you that it was because the boss disapproved of your non-work Halloween getup or the photos of you chugging beers with your homeboys during the tailgate. The newest rule for kids: if you don’t want it to get out, don’t post it! Thanks Lenore for bringing up this topic; I too would have never thought about this as a danger!

  15. Posts from facebook often get posted in the Google search engine, even if Facebook accts are private.. just something to think about.

  16. I have applied for some new jobs lately and several of the applications asked if you had a personal website and, if so, what the address is. I always say no because I don’t use my real name on any of the sites. I have searched myself just to be sure and my web sites don’t come up unless you use my pseudonym.

  17. Thanks for the heads up Lenore. My kids are too young for this sort of thing, but soon enough they’ll be online and I want to teach them how to behave there.

    It seems like we and our younger generation have this idea that the internet is different than reality and what we do or say online won’t catch up with us in our ‘real’ life. The internet is just an extension of our real lives, though so the same rules of decency and propiety need to apply.

    This was definitely a very useful bit of information and I’m thankful you shared it!

  18. As I heard someone say on TV today, once you put it into someone else’s hands (either online, in picture form, hard copy, video, etc), you have no expectation of privacy. They can do with it what they want (with exception to copyrighted information, but even those things have limited expectations of privacy). So, if you don’t want the entire world to know it, see it, hear it, or view it, don’t do it.

  19. Under the Terms and Conditions of using Facebook it says that if you post something on your facebook page, Facebook (the company has unlimited rights to use your pictures however they wish. If you delete the picture from your page they can no longer use it UNLESS someone else copied it and put it on their page.

    “For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it. “

  20. Charles — and that is why I refuse to have a Facebook account. Of course, it didn’t help when they had changed that particular section (before public backlash) that basically said that you could even close your account, but they still retained the rights to everything posted on it.

  21. Of course the talk turns to porn. That’s what the internet’s for!

    I am always careful about what gets posted publicly on my Facebook profile, although I am still rather trusting with some of my info. It helps that a lot of my more private interactions come through the Facebook chat application, which doesn’t log conversations, so your private conversations aren’t there forever.

  22. For an alternate view, I present this comic (contains a swear word)

  23. Cheers to that Scott!

    However, I think kids/people in general should be made aware of the possible repercussions, so the choice to um, eff that stuff, is deliberate and informed.

  24. There was a Laurel and Hardy movie which opened with subtitles that read:

    “Most of us have some experiences we’d just as soon bury”

    “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy have thirty or forty they’d like to cremate”

    Back in the 30’s a person could really mess up his or her life, start over in another part of the country and, with a bit of luck, not worry about the “bad times”. Today with data bases and search engines, bad things don’t always stay buried, and not even the US Army has flame throwers that can take out every server farm where unflattering data may be stashed. Suggested reading: “Arrest-Proof Yourself” by Dale C. Carson.

  25. Check out today’s Doonesbury …..

  26. Karen,

    Yes. That was a good one.

  27. “As I heard someone say on TV today, once you put it into someone else’s hands (either online, in picture form, hard copy, video, etc), you have no expectation of privacy. They can do with it what they want (with exception to copyrighted information, but even those things have limited expectations of privacy). So, if you don’t want the entire world to know it, see it, hear it, or view it, don’t do it.”

    These statement summed up the comment thread. “Be careful. It can come back to haunt you.” But why is no one asking the important question: Why is it allowed to come back and haunt you?

    A politician says something without thinking 16 years ago, makes a joke about gays or something, and someone digs it up and drags him from one end of the media to the other, demanding that he resign or be removed from office. Huh? People don’t change in 16 years? Is he really the same guy today as the one who made the off-handed comment 16 years ago? Are you the same person today that you were 16 years ago? 6 years ago? One year ago?

    A kid texts a risque photo to a friend. It’s a dare or something. It comes back to haunt him or her and they end up on some permanent sex offender’s list. They can’t be employed where they want to be 20 years or 40 years later. They can’t live where they want to live. Why is this allowed? Aren’t laws supposed to protect people? Is that kid the same person 20 years later? Why is the punishment so unbelievably out of line with the “crime”?

    Someone’s employer decides to dig up online photos of them at a party from several years ago, and use it as an undisclosed reason to fire that person. Their family now has no income or health insurance. Why is this allowed? Would you think it reasonable for that same employer to tap their employees’ home phone lines to spy out reasons to bully or fire them?

    Speaking for the US, do I have to point out that our constitution was established to (among other things) promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of LIBERTY to ourselves and our posterity? In all of the examples above and many more like them, we are having liberty stolen from us, and the law encourages it or enables it.

    The solution is not to tell your kids to avoid being themselves. We didn’t do that when the telephone was invented. We didn’t sit them down and have talks with them about how dangerous it might be to share personal information over the phone.

    The internet is a communication tool. It’s for sharing ideas, art, news, and information of all kinds. Kids are finding ways to interact with people from around the world at the click of a mouse, and honestly, they are well-ahead of the slow-poke adults when it comes to exploring the possibilities. And that’s a good thing! They should be punished for this? They should be kept in a virtual closet or bubble, always on guard to protect themselves from some future event that they can’t yet imagine or understand? Should our children be required to have knowledge of the future — accurately predicting with some crystal ball what’s safe to post today and what will come back in 16 years and hurt them?

    Some caution (and what used to be called common sense) should be used by them, yes, but the real problem is not addressed by that advice. That’s just the snowflake on the tip of the iceberg.

    What really needs to happen is that we who use modern technology to enrich our lives and communicate and learn and teach and all of that other stuff have got to demand that our slowpoke government get with the times. They have got to enact privacy protections, so that ordinary people are not spied upon, bullied, and unfairly targeted for all kinds of harm just because they posted an opinion or a photo of themselves online.

    Government left to its own devices works slowly. In the US, they are finally looking at healthcare in a meaningful way, when just about every other country on the globe figured it out 40 years ago. Many of our elected officials are completely ignorant of today’s technological advances and the impact that they are having (good and bad) on our lives. They NEED to catch up. They won’t do it until someone demands it. They work for you. You have to tell them that this is important, and that if they don’t figure out how privacy should be protected in this country, future generations (that’s “our posterity”) will truly suffer.

    That’s the only way to fix the problem. Making your kids put on a mask and water down their online persona is not the answer. If you think it is, you’re doing the online equivalent of asking them to put on a burqa and avoid showing their ankles in public for fear that the wrong authority figure might see them and have them stoned for impropriety.

    And yes, it’s a free-range issue. My kids deserve to run, play, and explore in the online world just like they run and play outside. Come to think of it, it’s a free-range human issue. You’re included in it, too, no matter what your age.

    Give your congressional representatives and senators a call or send them an email. Ask them what they think about this issue. I’ll bet many of them will have no clue what you’re even talking about. That’s what needs to change.

  28. Lafe, what exactly did you have in mind? I have a lot of sympathy for people whose quotes etc. Are taken out of context, but I have a hard time seeing how you can stop that legally without also damaging the ability of people to have an open and honest discourse.

  29. Lafe,

    There are consequences to our decsions. That’s life. I also am sympathetic to those who have their old mistakes dragged out in public, but we all have to deal with the results of decisions we’ve made in the past no matter how unfair it might seem at times.

    The whole point of free-range parenting is not to remove consequences so our kids can experiment willy-nilly and get away with it. The point is to prepare them for the reality they are going to face when they are on their own. That reality includes the fact that stuff you do as a young person affects your life, even years down the road, both good decisions and bad.

    Living a successful life requires both wisdom and yes, some forethought. Of course it’s impossible to forsee the consequences of every decison, every technilogical advance. That’s why it’s important to teach our children to use wisdom in everything they do.

    True independence is not freedom from consequences, but rather freedom to know how to avoid making bad choices to begin with. Compassionate parenting means teaching our children this truth, not shielding it them from it.

  30. “Making your kids water down their online persona is not the answer. If you think it is, you’re doing the online equivalent of asking them to put on a burqa and avoid showing their ankles in public for fear that the wrong authority figure might see them and have them stoned for impropriety.”

    No, actually you are asking them to treat people online, and to behave online, as they would in the real world, if they were face to face with another human being, instead of as if they were in a fantasy land where words and actions have no real-life consequences.

    Don’t say online in a public forum what you would not be willing to say publically and loudly from a public pulpit. Don’t say online in a private forum what you would not be willing to say face to face to your friends. For failure to follow this advice myself, I have sometimes made mistakes I regret, not because my freedoms were being stepped upon, but because I freely chose to say things I might not have chosen to say had I been in a face-to-face context, had I pasued to think.

    The veil of the internet reduces natural social inhibitions that exist to regulate human interaction when you are face to face (or even voice to voice) with a person.

    You are not asking your children to put a burqa on , but to take the burqa off, and to let the person to whom they are speaking look them in the eyes while they say what they say, and to pause and consider whether, without that burqa hiding them, they would be willing to make such statements.

  31. Hi Lenore,
    Thanks for choosing a subject of serious concern this week. Keep bringing such topics for discussion.

    Thanks again

  32. Some of this is the consequence of the web’s novelty. In 20-30 years we’ll have presidential candidates who posted extensively online in their youth, and most of the voters will know better than to take an old Facebook photo seriously (since they’re probably in the same boat themselves!).

    At the moment, though, we’re in a transitional period.

  33. Whenever someone asks me why I don’t have a social website (Facebook, MySpace, my own website, blah, blah, blah), spend enormous amounts of time playing online games or trading barbs with people in countries with names I can’t even pronounce, I look them straight in the eye and say these immortal words:

    Because the Internet is FOREVER.

    If I were to choose my “15 minutes of fame” it would not be with an unflattering picture of my unmentionables or an off-handed remark typed in a blog. Not this blog, of course. I consider this a place occupied by grownups with friendly bantering on subjects of serious (and not so serious) substance.

  34. I agree with sky…

  35. The rule of the internet is simple:

    Do not post anything you would not want your mother, your boss, or your worst enemy to see.

    I’ve known that since back in the days of BBS and Usenet, when I was nine years old. I was taught it by adults who had a good idea of what was to come.

    Interestingly enough, that advice absolutely ruined me as a diarist.

  36. I’m not sure how some commenters got the impression that I was trying to advocate a world in which no one takes responsibility for their actions or experiences meaningful consequences when they make mistakes (or willfully decide to do wrong).

    I was trying to point out that for some reason we live in society that doesn’t know where to draw the line on what’s a reasonable consequence and how long it should be around. Just because the internet can store information for a long time doesn’t mean that someone should have to suffer ten years of consequence for a mistake that deserves a few days or weeks of consequence.

    Growth happens when you make a mistake and learn from it and move on. We are in a transition period with the internet, as someone said above. People have to start realizing that it’s horribly unreasonable to allow a comment from a long time ago (or a picture, or an opinion that you no longer even hold) to continue being consequential, and put laws in place to delete data after a time, or protect privacy in some other ways. I don’t know all of the answers, but there should be a way for this technology to mature to the point where we don’t have to tell our kids to be so careful that they can’t be themselves online.

    Think about your credit history. You can make terrible mistakes and trash your financial reputation, and it can be hard to get loans, but there are rules in place, and things fall off of those reports after seven years. You can’t look at a wealthy person today and refuse to sell him a cell phone plan because he had a missed payment in 1962. That would be stretching a consequence out to unreasonable lengths.

    Telling our kids to avoid everything that could possibly come back to haunt them is like being afraid of a potential future 50-year credit history mishap, and telling them that the best protection is just to avoid using money.

    It’s not the best answer to truly address the problem.

  37. A throwaway punchline from the sitcom “News Radio” years ago: “You can’t get something off the internet. It’s like trying to get pee out of a swimming pool.” I laughed and had it in the signature line of my emails for a while. But it’s the truth.

  38. @Tracie

    Agreed! Bravo!

  39. I find this to be an easy topic to bring up with my children, who are just approaching the age when they will get into online networking. The thing to understand is that there is no such thing as privacy. The internet – *all of it* – is public. You should never post anything that you wouldn’t want certain people to see – just as you wouldn’t walk around the mall with your pants down. Speaking of which, anything you do that results in a criminal record or media coverage will also follow you around for life. That’s just how it works – better not to start out with any misconceptions about it.

  40. thanks fr making me alert. i am a parent of two kids. and one of kid surf a lot.I will advise him not to post online any bad stuff about friends

  41. […] Skenazy ( a woman whom I would very much like to meet) was right when she talked about “Reputation Management.” Everyone does stupid shit (me lifting useless crap from Wal-Mart at 13 comes to mind. Ma […]

  42. Great blog here! Also your site loads up very fast! What host are you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host? I wish my web site loaded up as fast as yours lol

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