People who spend many hours plugged into the virtual world maintain two personas: a real-life self and a digital self, or the persona we present in professional emails, social networking profiles, and blog accounts. Teens today are entrenched in the online world, but do they really know how to create, and control, their own virtual persona?
“Kids are pretty clued in already to virtual environments and may use several different personas according to the medium and the group,” says Bruce Levitan, an associate lecturer at Open University and business improvement manager at Manchester Metropolitan University. They may not know how to articulate the concept of virtual persona, he says, but they have an innate understanding of what it is.
What kids may not realize about their virtual personas, says Gerald Donovan, the assistant director of Sekolah Bogor Raya, an IB World School in Indonesia, is that what's posted online can stay online--permanently. “When I talk to kids, I encourage them to think of their digital persona as a brand name,” he says. “They need to make sure their branding is on message, and every virtual space they are represented in reflects how they view themselves and how they would like the world to view them,” he says.
Terrence Jegaraj, a senior studying performing arts at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, says he didn’t always pay attention to the information and comments he posted on social networks. But throughout high school, he has added summer program instructors, former school teachers, and even a few current school teachers to his Facebook network. “I know they are people who have access to my information, so I try to keep what I have up appropriate,” he says.
Jegaraj says he also communicates differently with friends and teachers on Facebook. “When writing to peers, I often do not pay attention to syntax and punctuation. But when I write to teachers, I use proper sentence structure and double-check what I write,” he says. “The same goes for emails.”
While some high schoolers like Jegaraj understand the importance of maintaining a virtual persona, not all teens are conscious of their digital selves. Below, Donovan offers tips to help them become more aware of their online presence:
Ponder before posting. Ask questions before uploading content online:
- "How would I feel if my Mom read this?"
- "How would I feel if the guy at Harvard read this?"
- "How would I feel if my prospective boss read this?"
Take a virtual tour. Your teen could give you a tour of her online spaces, from Facebook to Flickr to Twitter. (Be certain she understands that you will make no judgments. “Bite your lip if you see something you don't like and instead try to understand,” says Donovan.)
Analyze existing content. Look at what other kids post online and use it as a springboard for discussion. When kids are forced to evaluate their own behavior, they may become defensive and secretive.“If kids analyze somebody else's behavior, they are more likely to be critical,” says Donovan.
While the online community awaits the next big thing after Facebook, and social networks continue to evolve, one thing is clear: our identities are now defined by what we do and how we interact online.Your child should take notice, then, if she plans to succeed socially, academically, and professionally.