The Dos and Don'ts of Free Expression Online

My Social Media Rules for Tweens and Teens

I recently spoke to 5,000-plus middle and high school students from a single school district about their digital footprint and how it can affect their future goals. I was struck by the number of students that stayed after the presentations to talk to me about their perception of fairness related to their ability to freely express themselves online.

Many of them were outwardly angry concerning what I said during my presentation about recognizing the potential for colleges and employers to check them out online before making admissions or employment decisions. They felt that if colleges and employers did that, it went against what schools and parents have drilled into them: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

While I told them I agree, I also reminded them that unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect and just world. The reality is that others WILL judge them based on what they see online – the same way teens judge others based on what they see online.

As I was thinking about their concerns, I came across an article that reinforced the message I’ve been giving teens and their parents about being mindful about online posting activity. The author, after speaking with multiple admissions professionals, recommends that teens remember that it is ALWAYS a possibility that those in a position to make decisions about their future might look at their online activity and profiles, and what they find can affect the admissions decisions they make.

Many teens and young adults view social media as a place to let loose and express themselves. But teenage brains don’t often consider that these actions might have unintended consequences. That said, here are my 9 rules for teens when it comes to free expression online:

1. Be your best you – Authenticity is a good thing, but remember that what you post will reflect how others see you and you may wind up facing consequences (not getting into the school of your choice or getting the job you want) because of what you put online.

2. Take out the trash – Stop swearing or using offensive language.

3. Opt out of tags – Set your privacy settings so you can approve or refuse tags from others that can affect your digital footprint.

4. Practice the 2-second rule – Think before you post and ask yourself if you’d be ok if your parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, police officers, admissions professionals and potential employers saw your post. If you can’t say “YES” to all of them, then DON’T post it!

5. What’s in that red Solo cup? - You never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and no one is going to call you to ask you what kind of beverage was actually in the red cup photo you posted online – or if the words you used in your post were really a joke.

6. Live by the Golden Rule – Just like in the offline world, it’s not ok to bully or harass online.

7. What goes on Instagram…stays on Instagram – While you can make it hard for others to find mistakes you’ve made online, you can’t be sure those mistakes weren’t saved on someone else’s device. DELETE posting mistakes immediately, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that they can’t come back to haunt you.

8. They are watching – Adult decision-makers look online to make sure that you will properly represent their brand. If you don’t represent yourself well, they will infer that you won’t represent them well.

9. Know your Social GPA™ – Knowing how you appear online to others that are responsible for decisions about your future is a vital part of both the college admissions and job-hunting process. Take control of your online presence with The Social U today!


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