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Social Media Skeletons: Why Teens Need a Social Media Clean-up

How teens can bury social media skeletons for good, and use social media to strengthen—not harm—their reputation 

It’s the season for scares—and few things are as frightening as social media skeletons crawling out of the closet. We’ve all witnessed how these skeletons haunt victims: ruining reputations, costing careers, and causing shame and embarrassment.

Recently, the latest social media skeleton appeared when a viral “Beer Money” fundraiser promised to donate all the money raised to a children’s charity. Carson King’s viral fundraiser was the feel-good story of the week, until his social media skeletons were revealed in the form of racist tweets, sent seven years ago when he was 16 years old. In a plot twist, the reporter who uncovered King’s racist tweets had his own social media skeletons that came to light. The reporter was harshly criticized by the Twitter-verse, and ultimately lost his job.

A few weeks before that, it was Saturday Night Live’s newest cast member Shane Gillis, who was fired before he had the chance to appear on the show. Gillis’s skeleton came in the form of a now-viral tweet, showing clips of him making racist jokes on his podcast.

Last year it was Sean Newcomb, the Atlanta Braves pitcher. His social media skeletons were exposed immediately after he experienced his “career-best moment.” He left the field after a 4-1 victory, headed to the locker room to celebrate, and picked up his phone to learn that some tweets from his teen years had resurfaced and were coming back to haunt him—during his spotlight moment when he finally made it big.

Strange coincidence? Hardly.

When it comes to social media, the spotlight is usually followed by a microscope.

Today’s students may not be thinking of their future each time they like, share, and post on social media. However, it’s important for them to protect their character both now and in the future.

Of course, the best defense against social media skeletons is to never have any. It’s what all parents want for their teens, but what can we do to help?

How to Use Social Media for Good

Clean up current social media.

Encourage your teen to do some fall cleaning of their social media channels: to look back at what they’ve shared, how they’ve commented, the content they “liked” and favorited, and who they follow. Anything (or anyone) that does not reflect their values and goals needs to be deleted. It may take a while, but remind them it’s an investment in their future.

Keep it clean moving forward

Once they’ve polished their past posts, it’s time to think about what they share going forward.

Every time they like, share, or post, it’s equivalent to speaking into a microphone that reaches the world. We can use our words to hurt others, or we can use our words for good.

While I prefer to focus on the Do’s rather than the Don’ts – there are three things I coach students to never post:

  1. Never post content that introduces or reinforces a stereotype. You are better than that.
  2. Never try to cram a complex and complicated thought into a short social media post or caption. Without much context, others could take your message the wrong way.
  3. Never post content that only serves the goal of making friends laugh or like it. Stay true to your values and let your values guide your posts, not the amount of attention you will receive.

Have your child ask themselves this question: If a college recruiter, a coach, a future boss, or a dream mentor looked at my social media account, what would they assume about my character? 

It’s a thought-provoking question for teens. And the good news? If they don’t like the answer, they have a lot of opportunities to take back their reputation today—starting with every like, share, and comment.

Simply put: What we post on social media is a reflection of our core values. Basketball player Steph Curry says the best person you can be is the best version of yourself. Let’s be the best version of ourselves—both online and off.

Laura Tierney

Laura Tierney is the Founder and CEO of The Social Institute, empowering students and their role models to navigate social media and technology in positive, high character ways. Her team of digital natives bridges the digital divide between students and adults by offering schools a comprehensive, student-led curriculum and presentations.