What Does "Don't Post Anything Inappropriate" Really Mean?

Define "Inappropriate"

I’ve heard many parents tell their kids (myself included) “don’t post anything inappropriate online”.  We say this phrase and think we are being good/responsible parents – that we are doing our job when it comes to talking to our kids about being responsible on social media.

I would argue however that simply reminding our kids not to post anything inappropriate online is in fact NOT good parenting when it comes to social media education.  The terms “appropriate” and “inappropriate” and intentionally vague - what one person deems appropriate online behavior might be considered inappropriate by another; an idea was well summed-up by Justice Potter Stewart in his concurring opinion written in the 1964 Supreme Court decision for Jacobellis v. Ohio about obscenity when he wrote “I know it when I see it”.

When parents talk to their kids about online appropriateness, they need to SHOW their kids examples of what they consider appropriate and what they consider inappropriate and then talk about WHY they feel as they do.

I speak to groups of parents, kids and teens about online behavior every week and know first-hand that people hold very different definitions of appropriate.  A favorite example of mine comes from a week I spent earlier this year speaking to all the middle school and high school students in local school district.  Part of my presentation involves real examples of posts that led to trouble for the person who posted them. One example I use is an Instagram post with two girls holding Confederate flags, captioned “South will rise”.  When that image appeared on the screen a number of students got visibly and verbally upset. After the program, a few approached me to say that they took offense at my use of the Confederate flag as an example of a symbol not to post online. They told me that in their families, the Confederate flag was considered a symbol of their cultural heritage and therefore they felt posting that symbol online was completely “appropriate”.

When I get comments like this, I always remind students that while you are free to make your own decisions regarding what you choose to post online, you must understand that with that freedom often comes consequences.  Just because you think something is fine to post, doesn’t mean that others who see it won’t be offended by it or think poorly of you because of it.  Like it or not, in the 21st century, we are all judged (and we all judge others) to some extent based on what we see online and while we are free to express ourselves, we are not free from judgment or sometimes unintended consequences based on what we share.

Most students don’t post anything with the overt intention of being inappropriate and many are surprised when they find themselves in hot water because of something they shared online. The idea that kids will “know it when they see it” when it comes to appropriateness online is a falsehood.  Parents need to do a much more thorough job with their kids’ digital footprint education.

Julie Fisher, M.Ed., is the founder of The Social U and consults with schools, organizations and individuals through the MJ Fisher Group.  

Twitter: @Julz Fisher, @the_social_u