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An Open Letter to Teens re: Social Media

To Teens, Tweens and the People Who Love Them:
It’s Time to Get “Social Smarts”

I normally blog on business issues, but something happened at my house yesterday that compelled me to write this post. Please share it with the people in your life who use social media. Everyone needs some social smarts.

Dear Friend,

We haven’t met yet IRL (in real life), but I’ve seen you online and…
we need to talk.

You are growing up in a world where privacy is an old-fashioned concept. Almost everything you do is recorded, watched or monitored somehow.

We have cameras on our computers and cell phones, in stores, parks and on the highway. We check in on Facebook and Foursquare and whatever other check-in app you choose. Your phone goes everywhere you go, and the GPS on you phone always knows where you are.

Invasion of privacy used to mean my brother read my diary or the teacher intercepted a note about a cute guy and read it in front of the class. Times sure have changed.

Maybe you’ve been on social media since before you were born. (Did your mom or dad post those ultrasound pics on Facebook or MySpace or Flikr? I thought so.) Your whole life is there.

Yes, this is your world. It seems normal, I’m sure, because you’ve never known anything else. Maybe that’s why you don’t think twice before posting that crazy video on You Tube, or using those words (yes, the dirty ones that make your mother blush) on Twitter, and “OMG, did she really say that to him on Facebook?”

You’re in a relationship with social media and “It’s Complicated.”

Most of your parents don’t get it. (Sorry parents, it’s true.)

Well, let me tell you the hard truth that you don’t like to think about:

People are watching.

That creepy guy at the mall?
Yep, he’s online and he can read your Twitter stream.

That jerk you wish you never met?
He can Google you and get your life story in a flash.

Yes, Google indexes your Facebook feeds and your tweets and lots of other things you forget about 5 minutes after you post them.

The Internet never forgets.

I heard on the news that the FCC (people who set the rules for the Internet) have decided it’s OK for people to do social media background checks.

That means that 10 or 15 years from now when you apply for that really cool job that you’ve been dreaming about since your were, oh, the age you are right now, the people thinking about hiring you can pull up all those old message you forgot about and WOW…won’t they be surprised?

Is that what you want for your future you?

What about right now?

Would you stand up in front of a million people today and do that sexy dance or act like an idiot or talk about how you drank too much when you weren’t old enough to drink at all? Really? 1,000,000 people? What about 1,000 people? Or even 15 people? Probably not.

Well, tweet about it and you have the power to reach a lot more than 1 million people. PEOPLE. YOU. DON’T. KNOW.

Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. They are. Ask former Rep. Weiner. Or Gilbert Gottfried. Lots of people saw their messages, and look where it got them.

It’s not a secret.

Maybe your mom and dad don’t know you are on Twitter. You went behind their back and created that account, so no one will ever know except the 1579 friends you’ve collected on Facebook (including the ones you’ve never met).

How many of those people are who they say they are? You can be anyone you want to be online, right? Do you really know your “friends”?

My point is that you need to be CAREFUL online.

I’m not that old, but the world sure has changed since I was a kid. People used to talk about being “street smart,” which meant that you knew a thing or two about life and weren’t likely to be taken advantage of or do something that could get you in trouble – and I mean real trouble, not just the kind where you get grounded for a week or have your phone taken away.

The new “street smart” is “social smarts.” There’s way more trouble online, just waiting for you if you’re careless. And you might not see it coming.

I’m not trying to scare you, but wake up.

Protect your privacy online. Be careful what you post. Think twice.

Would you want your grandma to see that? Then it probably shouldn’t be online.

It’s really hard to undo social media mistakes. Mom and Dad can’t bail you out. You can’t buy your way back from a bad reputation. Poor judgement will follow you, because the Internet never forgets and yes, people are watching.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of social media. It’s a great tool for sharing, communicating and staying in touch. But any tool, when it’s misused, can create a lot of damage.

Don’t let that happen to you.

Have fun, but be careful out there. Please.

Join The Conversation

  • Sep 19 Posted 5 years ago Maranda (not verified)

    Thank you so much for this great post! As a 28 year old, I can remember being young and first getting exposed to the social aspects of the internet.  I remember AOL Chat rooms very well and because it was such a new thing to me and my parents, there was a lot of monitoring of my activities. I see the way my younger family members conduct themselves and it's sort of scary.  You're so right - they are so used to their lives being out in the open that they can't understand the concept that some things are not made for the world to read. I hope that some parents will read this and understand that it's not a safe world to give your children unfettered access to a number of strangers.  Thanks for sharing! 

  • Aug 22 Posted 5 years ago Anonymous (not verified)

    Good article. Straight to the point. We have been teaching "Digital Citizenship" in our courses at school for a couple of years now. It covers these topics and more...and very well received.


  • Aug 12 Posted 5 years ago Jenniferk (not verified)

    Great article! There is one thing that was left out - the pictures of you on the web aren't just the ones that _you_ put there, but ones that others can put too. Teens, watch how you behave at parties because the class jerk has a camera phone with video and has broadcast it to the world and there's nothing you can do about it. Your behavior in public is subject to being placed online at any time.

  • Aug 12 Posted 5 years ago Cindy Lavoie (not verified)

    Good article, and I'll share it with my teen.  However, your key point is that this Facebook generation of kids, who don't know any differently, just doesn't get the warnings.  It's like my mother warning me about the danger of sun exposure when I was young because 'some day' it might cause cancer.  My reaction?  "Oh, you're over-reacting Mom!"  From the roll of the eyes I get whenever I bring this topic up with my kids, I can just see the same thought process happening in their brains.

    On my more optimistic days, I hope that this social media craze is no more harmful to the vast majority of kids today than the rock 'n roll craze was harmful to my generation.  Our parents thought it would ruin our morals for life and the drugs would destroy our brains.  But most teens of that generation suffered no ill-effects.

  • Aug 11 Posted 5 years ago Steve Kalaydjian (not verified)

    The headline sure caputured my interest and instantly got me to LOL :D

    Beyond the need to be smarter about social media, I really wonder about people's needs to share so much information online. All the social media out there makes me wonder..when does sharing become TMI?

    Perhaps what would be helpful is to imagine that every message you send to your friends, followers and the like is similar to putting a message in their inbox.  We have email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and all the rest of the sites and services out there, and I can't help but think we have quickly become overloaded with messages to read..so many of which can be viewed as TMI. I can only hope that people learn to share online a little more sparingly :-)

    It's something not only teens and young adults could benefit from thinking about.  It's for anyone using social media sites.

    Just my humble opinion :)

  • Courtney Hunt's picture
    Aug 11 Posted 5 years ago Courtney Hunt


    I can't argue with the advice you offer, but I must correct this statement:

    I heard on the news that the FCC (people who set the rules for the Internet) have decided it’s OK for people to do social media background checks.

    It's not the FCC, it's the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), and they did not decide it's "OK for people to do social media background checks." No one actually needs their permission. What they did was issue a letter stating that a specific third-party service provider called Social Intelligence was generally in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

    To better understand the practice of social screening, I recommend the following pieces I've written:

    I've also just written a related post about social networking interactions between adults and minors:

    Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD - Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community

  • Aug 11 Posted 5 years ago Anonymous (not verified) This is incredibly well written - I am printing this out and handing it to my 13 year old step daughter straight away. Big thanks!
  • Aug 9 Posted 5 years ago JT's Hoops Blog (not verified)

    I can certainly agree with you.  Young people today have no idea when it comes to being discreet on social media.  Literaly everyone knows your business and once you post something, you can never take it back.  It will always be there lurking around in the web.  My advice is to lock up all your site TIGHT.  Facebook has excellent security measures to make sure that no one else but the people you allow sees your information.  Another thing for you younging is to maybe have another email address--one you use for close relations and one you use for less personal things such as business or acquaintances.

    With the advent of social media, it's so easy to build someone up and destory them at the same time.  That's why I'm EXTREMELY carefull when it comes to such things.

  • Aug 8 Posted 5 years ago K (not verified)

    Fantastic Post.  

    Privacy Settings are a must but even if you/your tweens have strict privacy settings, their photos etc. are still not safe.  If you are in a friend's photo and they have carelessly become friends with businesses, shops, clubs, etc. then anyone behind those profiles can still see it, of course they can also see ALL of your careless friend's info too.  

    There's even a local profile called after our beach, with 1,000s of friends - God knows who is behind that one, and what they are doing with the info they have access too.  Unfortunately many people don't know or don't care.

    Only Add people you know and never add a friend that isn't a PERSON. 

    Lead by example! 

    Help stop this by looking at your own "friends" - if they aren't people "unfriend them".

    Even if you know the people behind the business shop, org - don't set a bad example. Send them an email saying you would like to be a fan and can they let you know when they have a Page.

    Add Friend = Profile = People (REAL people using FB for personal reasons).  

    Like = Page = Business, Org, Festivals, Politician, Artists, etc.  


    Be safe,


  • Aug 7 Posted 5 years ago P Jeter (not verified)

     I see this as two issues: (a) protecting your physical self and (b)protecing your reputation.


    I think it goes without saying that information that can be used to identify you, where you are, or anything else that someone can use to harm you should be carefully cgaurded (including a hightened awareness of site we give it to and why they may need it). The funny thing is, research is showing that adults disclose personal information as often as younger people do.

    People over 30 would do well to heed that advice.

    When it comes to a reputation I'm of a slightly different mind. Up front, I should say that I would give any young person the same advice of being cautious of what they put out on the Internet. However, I wonder if this concern isn't going to end up having a generational component.

    Remember when there was an actual debate as to whether people would vote for a candidate who had been divorced. I heard that as recently as Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. Past pot use used to be scandalous, today, not as much. 

    Will those spring break pictures from Cancun be such big deal as the tail end of Gen X and the Millenials move into hiring positions? I don't know. I still would encourage people to mindful of what image they project on line but I also think we're going to see what is acceptable change.

  • Aug 7 Posted 5 years ago Anonymous (not verified) As good as this article is it only scratches the surface, missing out on details like the fact that information posted will be used by people to clone your identity and guess your passwords, photo's posted will be manipulated and reposted to create an impression beneficial to others and other information you rely upon changed to alter your actions.  There are benefits though, newspaper groups won't have to hack into your phones to access your personal life or to get governments to do what they want them to do.
  • Aug 6 Posted 5 years ago Anonymous (not verified)

    Sad truth I fear, the people (teens, tweens, young adults) who mostg need to take this awareness to heart will not.  ButI hope there will be that one exxception who will, or will be able to convince their child, friend, confidante to do so. As one who posted "Technical Help Notes" in 1984 to a closed, members only notesfile; and then I can see those same notes in a public forum today!!  Good thing I never said anything inappropriate!! Even as I speak, we have a "almost" adult grandchild, three weeks ago began dating an "on line" romance, and now is planning to be going on an "out of state" vacation with this young man. Here's hoping our guardian angel is on duty!!

  • Aug 6 Posted 5 years ago M.I.Pearsall (not verified)

    Just tweeted this out as a main theme in our young adult book, SUNDIAL, is how to survive and how to turn adversity into advantage. Your open letter details many important SOCIAL survival skills and requires smart decision making. Excellent post and hope it is in front of many teen and tween eyes! Excellent job!

  • Aug 6 Posted 5 years ago Diane Danielson (not verified)

    Excellent article. I just read this with my 11 year old son (who complained that I don't let him do any of those things yet) However, it's never too early because as you pointed out, many will create accounts without permission. Parents don't realize that by giving them iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads means that you are giving them access to social media. I recently discovered that all the high school kids in my town had jumped to Twitter. This coincided with a bunch of then suddenly friending their parents on Facebook.  We've also seen kids creating duplicate Facebook accounts (the real one is the one on their phones). 

    Unfortunately, I noticed that some of the postings by the kids on Twitter would likely keep good colleges from accepting them. I'm sure their parents have no idea.  Here's my posting about this: http://www.downtownwomensclub.com/2011/05/what-you-dont-know-about-your-childs-online-activities-can-hurt-them-and-you/

    Thanks for writing this!  Marked as a favorite and will make my son re-read when I finally do allow him to participate in social media.

  • Aug 6 Posted 5 years ago Steph (not verified)

    Excellent reminder! I'm sharing with my kiddos and posting on my FB wall. Thanks!

  • Aug 6 Posted 5 years ago Jenifer (not verified)

    There should be a second letter to those parents who see and choose not to act.  Until those kids are 18 (and sometimes longer) they are our responsibility to care for and protect.  Sometimes this means protecting them from themselves!  Thanks for posting!

  • Aug 6 Posted 5 years ago Ruth Sheahan (not verified)

    Great post! I'm sharing & tweeting. I hope a few kids read it and take note, there are a few adults I know who could benefit as well.

  • Aug 6 Posted 5 years ago Troop1028 (not verified)


    I had a chat with my kids about this very issue. Down the road, and even today, a social media background check, and not only a check, but there are apps that can go out and produce a resume based on a users posts and such.

  • kathymagrino's picture
    Aug 6 Posted 5 years ago kathymagrino

    Thank you for writing this great post, Joey! Now, I have something tangible to share with my students about this topic. I teach comm courses at Rider University and, every time we talk about social media, I try to hammer home the message that they need to be CAREFUL and SAFE and SMART in the online environment -- a place where they're so comfortable because, as you say, they've been on social media since "before they were born." But, frankly, we all need to be reminded about this issue and the fact that the "Internet never forgets." Thanks, again!


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