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Ask the Expert: How Can My Teen Avoid a Bad Digital Footprint?

Dear Your Teen,

My daughter asked me a tough question. “If I go to a party as the designated driver and my friends are drinking and taking pictures, how can I stay out of pictures if I don’t want to be associated with them?”

She’s heard that future employers and colleges look at social media. She worries they will look at these pictures and make decisions about her based on photos.

She also asked, “What do I do if I want to leave and they want to stay?”

Expert | Matthew H. Rouse, Ph.D.

As a psychologist who works with teens and their parents, I try to stay up-to-date with the ways teens use technology. I do this not so that my patients think I’m cool, but to be able to anticipate some of the pitfalls and dangers of these technologies. I can help ensure that kids are acting safely and responsibly online.

It’s difficult to stay even one step ahead, which is why I’m so impressed with your daughter. She seems to be several steps ahead by thinking through some of the long-term implications of a bad digital footprint. Her awareness about these potential issues will likely prevent her from making any serious missteps.

However, I would encourage you to help her find a balance between awareness/responsibility and feeling like she can be a kid and not worry so much about the potential effects of social media on her career prospects. As her parent, I suggest that you try to alleviate some of her worries.

How to Avoid Digital Footprint: 4 Steps to Social Media Privacy

  1. Show how her how to set her profiles/accounts to private, so that only friends can view her postings.
  2. Walk her through her privacy settings. Teach her how to create settings where it’s impossible to tag her in photos without her permission.
  3. Take her through the process of untagging herself from photos and deleting photos she’s already posted. These apps and services give users a lot of control over privacy—it’s just a matter of learning how to use the privacy settings.
  4. Also, do a Google search for her, for you, and for everyone in the family and see what comes up. It could be a fun, interactive way to teach an important lesson about your digital footprint.

Be a Partner in the Process

But more important than learning the mechanics of social media, it’s essential that you let her know that she will never have to face difficult situations alone.

You’ll get through them together. Talk through different scenarios like the ones she’s bringing up.

“What do I do if I want to leave the party and my friends want to stay?” It’s a great question—use it as an opportunity to come up with a plan together. Capitalize on this moment you have by creating an open dialogue for her to come to you with her concerns. Use the conversation to non-judgmentally introduce other scenarios.

For example, what should she do if she’s the one who has been drinking and she gets left behind by a friend? Although she will probably say, “That will never happen!”, it’s an ideal time to plant the seeds of sensibility. Communicate that you’ll be there to help her through any situation, no matter how dire it may seem in the moment.

Matthew Rouse is a clinical psychologist specializing in the assessment and treatment of ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders, as well as other disorders that may contribute to behavioral difficulties in children and adolescents.

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