Marsali Hancock

In our digitized lives nowadays, everything we say and do is captured, uploaded and archived across a number of connected devices.

That means that the video of you doing the electric slide in a banana suit at Aunt Marie’s 50th birthday party has a potential shelf life of forever once it has been posted to the Web. And by the time your aunt eventually deletes the embarrassing video per your request, it may have already been picked up by someone else who has now posted it on countless other sites.  

With this inability to ultimately govern our data files, we need to embrace the importance of a positive online reputation -- and more important, communicate that message to our youth. Here’s how to do it best.

1. Talk openly with your child

Having a conversation with your kids about creating a positive online reputation is critical to teaching them to manage their personal standing across digital devices. Help your kids understand by getting them to think of it as building their own personal brand. Ask them to consider questions like these: What type of impression do they want to leave with others? What type of feelings do they want others to experience when engaging with them via a social networking site, blog, email or text?

2. Monitor online activity

Ask your kids about their online habits. Join the social networking sites they belong to -- see how they work, find out who else has joined and even “friend” your children. You may be worried about cyberstalking your kids on Facebook or MySpace and invading their privacy. But don’t feel guilty about staying on top of their networking: You’d be giving them a false sense of security if you were leading them to believe that privacy exists on the Internet. 

3. Lead by (scary) example

Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, a counselor or an administrator, engage kids in discussions on how reputations have been created and destroyed by something as simple as an email or photo taken by a mobile phone. Highlight how celebrities, sports figures, beauty queens and politicians have all experienced the fallout from bad decisions that now exist on the Web for eternity. 

4. Connect the present to the future

Kids may be familiar with the immediate consequences of social media mishaps, but it’s vital that they grasp how their behavior across all digital devices strongly affects future opportunities as well, like admission to college, scholarships and employment. Show them that if you use it right, the Internet is a tool that offers boundless opportunities: By posting positive images, videos, comments, etc., they can get recognized in ways that open doors to a brilliant future. With the appropriate supervision, your kids can be seen as thought leaders, community participants, innovators and humanitarians. They can be recognized for their ideas and their ability to reach out globally.

5. Proactively maintain your kids’ online image

Cultivating a successful online reputation is an ongoing process. Make these steps a weekly custom:

Create and update a site, blog or digital portfolio with your child.

Use these digital vehicles to document accomplishments, community service and concern for current events taking place across the street and around the world. It will help your child create a positive brand.

Scan your child’s online reputation.

With your child, search what has been written about him or her online. This can be done on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis -- whatever is manageable for both of you. 

Take action to remove damaging information.

If your child has uploaded or texted damaging information, act immediately to pull what has been posted. Contact your Internet service provider, cell phone company, the website, etc., and walk through the process of how to remove the information.

Remember: Children don’t yet fully understand the complexity of the advantages and pitfalls that arise from social navigation. Adult supervision is crucial if they are to make sound digital communication decisions.

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