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 one day that compelled me to write this post. It’s been a few years since I first published it and the advice is more relevant than ever. 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.

  1. I loved reading this post. The more we can get our kids to realize that the online world is a tricky place, the better off they will be. I’ve written on this extensively myself (in fact, my company’s name is SocialSmarts!) so some other pieces that may be of interest and helpful are at

    – Corinne Gregory

    1. Hi Corinne, that’s for sharing your info. It feels like an uphill battle some days, but you are right – it is SO important to educate our children about online safety so they don’t end up in situations they can’t undo.

  2. Hi, this is such a great post, may I reproduce it in my blog ? It’s an Spanish speaking site.


    1. Hi Ramon, I’m glad you liked the post. Thank you for your offer to share it. I sent you an email with some additional information.

      all the best,

  3. Thanks for this important message. It would be helpful to know what happened in your house (in a general way), which prompted the writing. Stories are more effective than instructions, especially when trying to get through to teens.

    We need to show children and teens exactly how to tighten up their privacy settings on Facebook. My FB settings are by and large “Friends Only” for everything. When I Google my name and city there are multiple pages of references to me, because I am a published author. But not one of them comes from my personal Facebook page. I think your article could be even more helpful if you spelled some of this stuff out.


    1. Hi Sandy, thanks so much for your feedback. I didn’t include much detail about what happened because I wanted to protect my daughter’s privacy. Let’s just say there was a lapse in judgement that made me realize that plenty of kids have no concept of the implications of their online actions.

      I love your idea about the “how to” details. That would be useful for anyone – not just teens. I’ll try to tackle that one in a future post.

  4. I hope you don’t mind that I’m sharing this with my high school students. It’s one of the topics that gets touched on when we talk about job applications and resumes, but this makes the implications perfectly clear. Really excellent job.

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