Oscar Wilde once said the worst thing wasn’t people talking about you, but rather people not talking about you. I love Oscar Wilde, but in this I think he’s wrong.
In our post-Internet age where reputations can be irreparably destroyed with a few clicks of the send button, people saying the ‘wrong things’ about you, can be devastating. Especially if you are young and vulnerable apropos a teenager.
My daughter (the one formerly known as Dark Princess but who has demanded a re-brand so will be known from now on as Whovian Traveller), came home recently with a sobering story about the latest social media craze amongst teens – Ask.fm.
A site that has become very popular amongst teenagers, Ask.fm enables logged-in users to ask (and answer) questions. Of course the formula is in itself not too worrying but when those questions are asked anonymously and displayed on the user’s account for all to see things can get very difficult. Problems arise.
Problems like: a young 17 year old being asked if he was gay in a very explicit, direct way. Or a 14 year old being asked why she doesn’t kill herself or an 18 year old why she doesn’t stop being the town ‘bike’.
Ignoring the question doesn’t help, because an unanswered question can signal to suspicious little minds that it is too close to the truth. And that’s how rumours grow legs and race across the world and cyber bullying flourishes. Answering the question can lead to a flame war that illuminates the problem as effectively as a distress flare highlights the spot where the ship went down.
Whovian Queen isn’t on Ask.fm (wise girl!) but she was horrified to read questions posed to friends of hers who are on the site and a little perplexed about how they can deflect hurtful negative chatter.
What can we do to help our teens maintain their privacy and keep their teenage fumbles and failures offline?
My first suggestion was to look to the website security and safety policies. They clearly state that the site should not be used for bullying and hastens to add that they will report any criminal activity to the appropriate authorities, but with over 40 million users worldwide that’s a policy that cannot be easy to police.
It’s the uncontrolled, un-moderated wild, wild west out there!
Next, don’t ever post anything online whilst under the influence of the three D’s – drugs, drink or deadbeats. However witty, or amusing, alternative, edgy or clever your post may seem to you at the time. It isn’t. It never will be. Ever.
Then interrogate your need for exposure. Why does it matter? Why do you want people to pay you attention? What drives that need and will it be as strong and persuasive a desire in a year’s time? Or ten years?
Third piece of advice is this – the people you want to catch the attention of won’t notice, and the people you hope won’t see, will see.
Your Facebook post may well reach over 74,000 people all over the world, including your Great Aunt Ethel, how many of those 74,000 will care even if they do see it? Isn’t the actual circle of influence considerably smaller and defined by those who have an interactive connection with you? And Aunt Ethel, of course!
Of course teenagers find this perplexing – why wouldn’t anyone care about their lives, their angst their trials and tribulations?
Whilst for adults looking on is the most perplexing question is: Why give strangers the opportunity to comment on your life or put you on the spot?
But can we really lecture the Internet generation on what is appropriate online? Our generation who brought to the younger generations instant stardom in the X Factor format (a format that thrives on mocking those poor deluded souls who think they can sing), YouTube fandom and Facebook followers.
We set up this generation of teenagers. We created an online world where teenage mistakes can be paraded in front of a unseen judge and jury of online onlookers. After all, Facebook was designed as a means of grading college girls’ attractiveness.
I think we need to get involved in our teen’s lives online just as we do offline and ensure that they understand the game and the perils of playing. There’s a price to pay for for popularity and fame, and it’s a price you don’t want to be paying years after you’ve finally reached adulthood.
So what should teens do about Ask.fm or Facebook or Chat rooms, for that matter?
I believe teens need to learn how to capitalise the advantages of the new forms of social media whilst simultaneously learning how to keep themselves safe and their privacy intact online. Just as adults like us, need to. As parents we can help them achieve this by keeping an open comms channel with our teens, and that includes understanding where they frequent online and what they’re up to.
Do you know where your kids hang out online?