The Digital Footprint Your Kids Leave Behind
Last night I was on Twitter when I noticed that there was a topic trending “helpfindkara.” Ordinarily I don’t click on trending topics, but I had nothing really going on so I clicked to see who was “kara” and why was she lost.
After reading a few tweets, and reading where those tweets led, I realized it was about a teenage girl who tweeted there is someone in my house, call 911. Then she disappeared and had not been heard from since. As I am typing this right now, the news outlets are reporting that it was a hoax and she apparently has tweeted that and actually ran away from home. Why anyone would do that is beyond my comprehension, but that seems to be the story. There are photos of her from a bus station where she is seen alone with packed bags. I thought the whole point of running away was that you didn’t want people to find you, tweeting what she did seems to assure that there would be boatloads of people searching for her. But, what do I know.
What interested me as this whole ordeal unfolded, was the fact that other teenagers, or so they mostly appeared to be, read through the girl’s Twitter account and one after another they declared her as mean, rude, and that they should all “helpfindkara” some manners. And this was all before it was revealed to be a hoax.
It got me thinking about the digital footprint we leave behind, all of us. But for our teenagers, many of whom do not seem to grasp the concept of long-term consequences, it is an especially important topic. What you put out there on the Internet, lives there forever. Even if you delete things, they are still out there, floating around in the Internet ether. There could have been a screenshot of that regretful photo. Things you wish you had never said are forwarded on and become viral. The Internet is not an anonymous faceless place anymore. I’m not sure that it ever was, but at least the illusion was there years ago.
I had a wake up call a few years back when one someone was able to cross- reference photos I posted on my personal blog with posts I had written over the years and use that information to find my exact address and my children’s last name. Not only was that creepy, but it seems like that stranger was really emotionally-over-invested in me and family.
Last week a friend shared something that happened in her teen son’s social circle and it really made me pause. She was approached by Ann, the parent of one of her teenage son’s friends with screenshots of her own son’s Facebook account. My friend’s son rarely uses Facebook so what he writes shows up only occasionally in her or her husband’s feed and they often miss what he posts. When she and her husband looked through his account later in the day, they noticed that over the past 6 months he had a couple innocent photos… sitting in class with friends, one of him and his girlfriend, etc. He had three status Facebook posts. One tagged his girlfriend and said “If you were a drug, I’d be addicted to you.” The second said “The worst test to fail is a drug test.” In the comments of that one he had clarified that he wasn’t talking about himself at all, since he has never even taken a drug test, but a “friend.” The third simply said “Legalize” and half of his one trillion friends had “liked” it.
Ann, the concerned parent, was checking up on her own teenager’s friends and she had read those three Facebook status updates in succession on his page and thought my friend and all the other parents whose kids had “Liked” those Facebook updates would want to know that their teenager was into drugs. Look at the evidence, Ann implored, it is right there under your nose and you are missing it! But, is what is online always the truth?
My friend and the other parents thanked Ann profusely for bringing it to their attention, and while they know that their teenager is not into drugs in the real world, they were shaken by it. There is no back-when-I-was-your-age frame of reference for this. When we were kids, we would say stupid things to our friends or perhaps write them in a note that was passed in class. But things are different now, the stakes are higher. Our kids type out a hasty status update or a tweet and it is there, and searchable, for as long as someone wants to search for it. I am not sure we really know the long term implications of this. I always say that raising teenagers is about protecting them from themselves, but now that has shifted in recent years, to protecting their future-selves from their teenage-selves.
What if it had been my kid? What would I have thought if those statuses had scrolled by me on my Facebook page, months apart? Had I seen the post on his Facebook account, the one that simply said “Legalize,” I think I would have made him take it down. I am all for erring on the side of caution and his future career prospects. I’d really like for my children to move out one day and be well-educated and gainfully employed. The other two Facebook posts did not bother me in the least, but maybe they should have. I really don’t know the answer.
When viewed in succession it does seem to suggest a pattern and it’s definitely not a pattern I would want to be associated with my kid.
Last night, I watched over and over people on Twitter point out that Kara from “helpfindkara” was not a very nice girl. They pointed to her tweets as evidence of that. What does my twitter feed say about me, I wondered. I looked over my last tweets, they are mostly me complaining. I don’t even really recognize that voice. That is not how I see myself on a daily basis, but yet, there it is in writing for everyone to see. If I were to disappear and people had only those tweets to get to know me, what would it say about me? That my appliances break way too often, I hate exercise, I love vodka and shoes, and my children’s homework makes me homicidal. Is that the message I want to send? While all of those things are more or less true, they do not accurately portray me. If I disappeared would people say I was an out-of-shape, materialistic drunk with anger issues?
That is pretty much what I saw happen with the Kara story.
It would be nice if, when our kids turned 18, everything they had ever typed online disappeared as though it were written in invisible ink. Someone should get on that.
Speaking of parenting (like that segue?), we have chosen the first book in our parenting book club. I am so excited to read The 5 Love Languages of Children with everyone. It has been a very long time since I first read it and it truly changed the way I thought about parenting and my relationships with my children. I can’t wait to reread it and see what I take away this time, as well as hear what everyone else thinks.
Published October 3, 2012. Last updated April 11, 2018.