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Taking Precautions With Online Information

How Online Information Can Haunt Your Teen

During a career planning class, Brenda Fabian asked how many students use Facebook, a popular on-line networking community for college students. Almost everyone in the room raised a hand. "Then I asked how many knew that employers were reviewing Facebook for hiring purposes," says Fabian, the director for the Center for Career Services at Susquehanna University. "No hands were raised, and their faces revealed the students' surprise."

Community Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Friendster and Xanga have exploded in popularity over the past few years. The Web sites allow users to create Web logs (better known as blogs), post photos, chat or leave messages, hang out virtually with friends or meet new people. On one hand, the sites can be a lot of fun and provide a creative outlet. (It really is hard to argue with anything that encourages teenagers to write!) On the other hand, parents rightly worry about published private information that attracts online predators or cyber-bullies.

Permanent and Accessible

Although some parents do keep track of their teen's online activities, most teenagers don't realize that Web sites may be monitored by schools, prospective employers or anyone else who might be interested in the teenager's lifestyle – not just today but anytime in the future.

Most of us don't realize that the information that gets posted on the Internet may be dormant or deleted, but it doesn't disappear permanently. "The stuff is there forever," says Jamie Riehle, director of Web publishing at Lycos. "It is backed up on servers and doesn't go away."

As company recruiters, college admissions officers, law enforcement personnel and parents become more Web savvy, it becomes even more vital for teenagers to use caution when posting any information on their Web sites. Even though sites that are private – i.e., can be seen only be a preselect list of friends or buddies – won't come up on a basic search engine investigation, there are companies that, for a fee, can dig deeper into cyberspace and find anything. Even government officials who thought that deleting e-mail would exonerate them from wrongdoing are discovering that, on the Web, there is no such thing as private or gone forever.

Steven Rothenberg, president and found of CollegeRecruiter.com, suggests that teenagers think of their Web postings as tattoos. "Inherently, there is nothing wrong with them if they are private or benign," he says. "But if they are visible or offensive, it can affect the way others see you."

Look Who's Watching

Luckily, much of what teenagers post about their lives is benign, but there are many tales of weekend parties involving underage drinking, drug use or sexual conquests. Kids post pictures of themselves and friends with beers in hand or in various stages of undress. They brag about crimes or acts of vandalism, never realizing that someone other than their friends is reading.

According to Steve Jones, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois Chicago, school administrators and police are using sites like MySpace and Facebook to help solve campus crimes. "Officials are looking for students who implicate themselves and others," says Jones. For example, several colleges have used these community Web sites to identify students who stormed the field or court after ball games. The students brag about the exploit or post photos taken on camera phones.

Parents often remind their children that it is important to choose their friends wisely. This is even more important now. A teen who is always very careful about not sharing personal or incriminating information on her Web site can still find her reputation destroyed by something written on a friend's blog.

Vicki Courtney, the mother of two teenagers and author of Your Boy: Raising a Godly Son in an Ungodly World (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), regularly checks her children's MySpace sites, and she knows that what her kids are writing meets her approval. Even so, she says, "I have Google alerts set to my children's names." This, she found, will sometimes show when other teenagers are talking about her kids.

Although the most commonly used search engines don't always pick up every keyword on the community Web sites, parents can use sites like archive.org or technorati.com, which focus on information posted on blogs. These are search engines used by companies to gain background information on potential employees. Courtney says she can see Web-savvy parents using the search engines to find out "dirt" on a daughter's new boyfriend.

Right now, using the information culled from these Web sites is not widespread, but these community sites are also just coming into mainstream knowledge. Like the rest of Internet technologies, the more people become familiar with what's available, the more companies and universities will use it to their advantage. It is not unreasonable to expect, when all other variables are equal, an employer will use blog posts to make a decision between two candidates.

Using Common Sense

While the teenager is still living at home, parents should consider monitoring their child's Web site. At the very least, parents need to provide some guidance or instructions on the information their teen shares online, such as the following:

  • Don't post anything you wouldn't want your grandmother or another respected adult to read.
  • Don't answer the questionnaires about your personal life. "These questions are often the same ones used for password retrieval," says Riehle. "This can lead to identity theft."
  • Don't ever post full names, addresses, phone numbers or any other information that can identify you. If you post an e-mail address, use a free account that you don't use anywhere else.
  • Don't say negative things about friends, bosses, teachers or yourself.

Teenagers shouldn't be discouraged from using the technologies available to them, but they should be taught to use that technology wisely so their words and actions don't come back to haunt them in the future.

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