Digital Footprint

Go Google yourself.

I dare you.

My first encounter with online reputation (or digital footprint as well call it nowadays) came in freshman year of high school, when the “popular girls” were caught “spreading rumors” on an ancient platform once known as The Message Board.

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In the case of my high school cohorts, the “topic,” or “area of interest” usually consisted of another girl, the victim, whom the popular girls tore apart with a keyboard. No pictures, no gif options, just harsh words.

Clearly, we’ve evolved. The message board was abandoned for the profile page, and in 2004, I found myself on both The Facebook and MySpace. 2004 was a time of relative internet freedom, where Millennials posted whatever, whenever, with no fear of the repercussions.

Fast forward to 2011. I’m in Chicago, it’s January, my retail job fell through, and I’m scouring the Interwebs looking for employment. And that’s when I did it.

I Googled myself. And I DID NOT like what I saw.

My MySpace page popped up as one of the first search results for Victoria Freyre. What an embarrassing mess. Too many borderline inappropriate images with overly-emotional teenage song lyrics scrolling across the page in brightly colored font from a custom HTML code. Next came my original Twitter account, equally as moody, just as Internet visible. Even Facebook, the last bastion of privacy, appeared in my search results, much to my chagrin. Needless to say, I went on a massive image control campaign with myself, deleting the horrific MySpace page and finding clever ways to change my name to keep my personal social media profiles from appearing in the Google search results on a potential employer’s computer screen.

Which brings me to my real point. Let me start, as I always do, with a disclaimer: I DO NOT HAVE CHILDREN. I will, but I don’t have them currently. Here’s the stnobthing, though – a lot of people I know have children. I see children everyday as I endlessly (and badly) scroll through any and all social media feeds. Now, sharing photos of one’s children in and of itself is not a bad thing. We love our lil’ kiddos! We want to share them with our friends and family! But in the ever increasing, hyper-connected world in which we live, I sometimes think back on my moment of enlightened shame the minute I Googled myself. And those results were self-induced by my own silly, college-age choices. What about kids who aren’t cognizant enough to make sloppy, college-age decisions? What do they think about their lives being broadcast all over the internet, whether its a photo of them with food smeared across their tiny faces or a status update/rant about the tantrum they happened to throw in the mall?

The University of Washington recently led a study in conjunction with the University of Michigan in order to find out what children thought about their parents’ posts:

The answers revealed “a really interesting disconnect,” said Alexis Hiniker, a graduate student in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington who led the research. She, along with researchers at the University of Michigan, studied 249 parent-child pairs distributed across 40 states and found that while children ages 10 to 17 “were really concerned” about the ways parents shared their children’s lives online, their parents were far less worried. About three times more children than parents thought there should be rules about what parents shared on social media. (New York Times)

Wait. So you mean to tell me that children actually have an opinion as to what they want shared online?!

In most cases, parents and children agreed — don’t text and drive; don’t be online when someone wants to talk to you. But there was one surprising rule that the children wanted that their parents mentioned far less often: Don’t post anything about me on social media without asking me. (New York Times)

Oversharing without the consent of our kids can create a “digital footprint” that our children may grow to resent. Embarrassing stories and photos can, in theory, live forever in the annuls of the web, which creates an interesting predicament for parents who just want to share their joy and/or struggles with their networks of loved ones. There’s nothing wrong with reaching out for advice – being a first-time parent looks scary in ways I have only just begun to imagine. It helps to voice an issue or frustration and hear feedback from those who have parented before you. But do we need to put our child all out there – name, photo, details – just because we can’t figure out a way to make them eat??

When parents share those early frustrations, they don’t see themselves as exposing something personal about their children’s lives, but about their own. As a society, says Ms. Steinberg, “we’re going to have to find ways to balance a parent’s right to share their story and a parent’s right to control the upbringing of their child with a child’s right to privacy.

“Parents often intrude on a child’s digital identity, not because they are malicious, but because they haven’t considered the potential reach and the longevity of the digital information that they’re sharing,” said Ms. Steinberg. (New York Times)

There are many ways to share your kid pics on the internet that don’t involve publicly embarrassing them/possibly tainting their future chance at employment before they can even form a sentence. Platforms such as Shutterfly, Google Drive (for those of you with Google accounts), or Dropbox offer free, private ways to share moments with your friends and/or family. And this advice goes for all of us, whether we are adolescent kids, or just middle aged and looking for a career switch – beware of the reputation that may follow you online

And then there’s always the old fashioned way. Print the pictures you like, collect addresses, and send them to people! Physical photos are so few and far between these days. It’s always a treat to have a new picture to frame. Let’s make it a new habit.

And while we’re at it, let’s Think Before We Post.

“Digital Detox” is a weekly series written by Communications Director Victoria Freyre. Every Friday, we explore different ways to disconnect, use the digital world responsibly, and rekindle human connection. To stay current with our latest posts,  follow #digitaldetox on our other platforms and check back regularly for updates.

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