Is life online stifling young people’s self-expression?

Young people have been cautioned: For years, they’ve been told by parents and teachers that whatever they post online will follow them forever, potentially impacting their educational and career prospects. And, youth have taken heed. More and more we hear of social media profiles being “cleaned up” before university applications are submitted, or a young person thinking twice about posting a less-than-flattering photo. But, could all of this digital self-editing be hampering true online self-expression?

In a post late last year, I referenced a youth-led discussion that I participated in as part of 2014’s Safer Internet Forum in Brussels. At the time, I noted I would revisit the topic and, perhaps the start of a New Year is just the time to do so.

“You only have one online life!” That was the statement 75 people were asked to react to during the session. Six tables of between 10 and 12 people each, both teens and adults, immediately started to scramble. “Does it mean you only have one online profile that you share?,” asked one participant at my table. “I think it means your offline life and your online life are the same,” offered another.

Regardless of the statement’s intended focus, it stirred a broad range of sentiments. One male teenager from Austria suggested that perhaps true and complete self-expression “as we know it” is “going away because we’re so worried about the future.” A Romanian male teen suggested social media and life online among youth was nothing more than a charade, perpetuating an “illusion of the perfect.” And, a third young man from Portugal summed up teens’ online activities like this: “They’re being themselves, but just publishing the good things. That’s what they’ll want to remember a few years from now.” [What do you think? Weigh in on Twitter at #MSFTCOSO.]  

Before sharing our discussion points with the plenary session, our group went on to debate self-expression versus full expression, anonymity as a form a self-expression, cultural elements and the need for “situational self-expression” both online and off.

These and other considerations – by author/publishers themselves, as well as others – combine to form one’s online reputation. Indeed, whether you know it or not, odds are you have an online reputation culled from what you share in the digital world and what others post about you.

At Microsoft, we encourage individuals of all ages to take charge of their digital reputations by regularly following some important guidance. The start of 2015 seems a fitting time for a refresher. Specifically:

  • Discover what’s on the Internet about you by entering your name into multiple search engines.
  • Evaluate your online reputation by examining the results.
  • Protect your online reputation by behaving online in a manner that reflects the reputation you want to nurture.
  • For young people, look to the future and begin cultivating a professional reputation by being mindful of posts, comments and other content. Same goes for adults; and:
  • Restore your online reputation and correct any inaccuracies as quickly as possible. Oftentimes, if someone posts something without your permission and you’d prefer that it not live online, a simple request to remove it may be all that’s needed.

An additional piece of advice that emerged from the Safer Internet Forum session: “Don’t be a keyboard warrior,” or get enticed into “keyboard rage.” Indeed, when weighing whether to share or not to share online, “balance” should always be a watchword.

Overall, our group concluded that many people online today maintain different “lives” for varying circumstances and relationships. A few youth in particular wondered if that somehow equated to being “fake” or “phony.” Still, most agreed an individual’s “real self” is connected to and springs (at least partly) from the audience receiving the message. One teen recapped our discussion this way: “Bad moments are far more private. I would share them (face to face) with my best friend because maybe you’d get a hug or some chocolate. And, nothing can replace that.”

To learn more about safeguarding your online reputation, visit our Safety & Security Center; “like” us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter, and look for my “point of view” following the #MSFTCOSO hashtag. For more about the Safer Internet Forum and the European Commission’s Safer Internet Program, check out the noted links, and read about the European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children.