When I was in secondary school in the mid-2000s, once a year or so, the teachers would come to class, put on their “cool adult” persona, and warn us about not speaking to strangers on the internet. They’d show us videos of “Facebook etiquette” and remind us that potential employers look at your profile, so make sure to use your real name, not an obscure, potentially embarrassing username. Facebook seemed like the primary window to the online world, and it seemed like the only way you could engage with others on the big scary thing called the internet, using the chunky shared PC in the family room. Things are wildly different now.
The internet doesn’t live only in our modern svelte personal computers anymore; it’s in our pockets too, and extremely accessible. There are now loads of websites and applications to connect to people all over the world, not just Facebook connecting us with our classmates and relatives. And speaking of Facebook, it is now mostly popular with the older generations; the youths are opting for Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc. Not only that, but Facebook could also be considered to actually be one of the more private forms of an online presence. How about that? Watching the ways that the internet has changed and, very importantly, how people tend to interact with it, I think it’s important to make some updates to the rules that I was taught in my teens about how to safely exist online as a minor.
- No detailed private information: In many online spaces, having an attitude of openness and sharing about yourself is encouraged in order to connect with other people, but that does not mean you are obligated to share your personal information with the world. While you can share whatever and as much as you’d like about yourself, I’d recommend that minors share very little. Personal information like full name and address should not be readily displayed on a child’s online profile. Even stating one’s age in a profile bio can leave a child open to being targeted by creeps looking for exactly that kind of information. Also, avoid tagging locations pertaining to one’s home address or regularly visited places.
- Use pseudonyms: Especially if a child has a unique name, they should avoid making that their social media tag. Make liberal use of creative usernames!
- Remember the block button: A stranger on the internet is not entitled to your time and is not worth risking your safety and mental health for. If there is someone persistently being insulting, asking pushy questions, or being outright inappropriate, block them.
- Choose your posts wisely: One piece of advice that has remained the same over the years is that once you post something online, it is no longer exclusively yours. Everyone has the ability to take screenshots, and there’s no telling where your words or pictures will end up without your knowledge. Be discerning about what you say and what images you post.
- Not everyone can be an influencer: The prevalence of online personalities or social media influencers can make anyone feel like they need to be like them, particularly so for impressionable teenagers. Influencers can make it seem like the way to “be online” is to have lots of followers, lay your personal life bare for anyone to comment on, and plaster your profiles with images of your face and body. But not everyone needs to post like an influencer. A social media profile doesn’t have to be a reflection of one’s life, and having a profile does not mean that you’re obligated to churn out “content”. Being a passive consumer is fine! It can help a person avoid harmful comments from “trolling” strangers and the soul-draining phenomenon of measuring one’s worth by the numbers on one’s posts.
Like many social spaces, the internet is not inherently harmful; it needs to be navigated with care, especially for someone who is underage. And while many things about the internet have changed in the past decade or so, the fact that there are people who use this medium to do harm has, unfortunately, stayed the same. Make it difficult for them to do that! Protect your children by helping them create a careful, conscious, safe online presence.