About 8 years ago, I kept getting emails saying that people from my past were asking me to join Facebook. I thought to myself, “Facebook? That’s for college students!” As a professor, I knew how popular MySpace.com and Facebook were with my students. So it never occurred to me that it would eventually get popular with people my age, and the general public.
I finally got enough of these emails from people in I knew as a kid that I thought, “Hey! So-and-so who I dated in high school wants to connect with me?! How cool is that?!” I wasn’t even sure I understood Facebook, but I knew I was curious about what these people had done with their lives. Curiosity pulled me in. And it probably pulled you in too.
But honestly, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.
That first year or so was so much fun! As you have probably experienced yourself, it was great catching up with the people you knew so long ago. It was amazing seeing pictures of their kids, who they married, and what kind of career they chose. It was almost better than going to a class reunion. You could actually catch up with almost everyone and anyone you wanted to. For someone like me, it was a dream come true because I am kind of a naturally curious person (aka “nosy”).
After a while, however, I began to see Facebook and other social media in a different way. For example, I once had a student in my class who worked for some company associated with Facebook. And he was telling our class how he will never, ever get a Facebook account. When we all asked why, he explained how any information you put out there on the internet is there permanently. Even if you delete photos, posts, lock down your social media security, or even completely delete your whole profile, your information never really gets “deleted.” It’s always available. The average person might not be able to find it, but if someone knows what they’re doing, they can find anything.
So, it’s important to think about the potential dangers of putting your personal information online. And not just the danger of having someone steal your identity (which happened to a good friend of mine), but how it can also threaten your home. Many of my friends on Facebook give daily updates of where they are at any given moment. And on top of that, people almost always post their vacation pictures in real time. Imagine if a criminal sees that your whole family is gone for two weeks on vacation to Europe, and they can easily find out where you live. And if this happens, you have just made yourself a target for a robbery. It’s easy to forget how vulnerable we are online when we just want to share our joy with our friends and family on social media.
And other concerns you should think about go even beyond safety issues. In many of my classes, I teach the students about how people create an “online identity.” For example, many college students will post photos from their spring break. And that’s just one of the things you shouldn’t do. While there’s not anything inherently wrong with that, if you post a picture of yourself doing a beer bong or smoking a bit of pot, guess who is going to see that someday? Your potential employers, that’s who. And let me tell you, most companies do troll around everyone’s social media profiles before they ever extend a job offer. In this day and age, it’s amazing how much you can tell about someone based on what kinds of things they put out on social media. Try it sometime. Go to someone’s profile (someone you don’t know very well) and see if you can tell what kind of person they are. You can probably get a very good idea. I do this in my classes. I pull up some of my friends’ profiles and show my students. I ask them to describe the person to me, and it’s always remarkable how accurate they are. Just through the pictures and the postings, you can really tell who someone is. So make sure that your online identity is not only positive, but is respectable.
Furthermore, online identity doesn’t even stop at social media. These days, so many people go online to find love. You are supposed to be putting your best self out there, because you want to find a date. But it’s amazing how many people’s profiles are less than desirable. The act of creating your identity online should be taken as seriously as you would take a job interview.
Social media (and online dating) is fun. But it’s important to realize that there are some more serious considerations. It’s especially important for us to teach our children about these things so the next generation will not only be able to protect themselves, but they will be responsible people by carefully considering what kind of identity they bring into cyberspace.