And it really is permanent. Youthful indiscretions that in the past might only have existed in the memories of people who were there, or in blurry, easily destroyed Polaroids, are now posted online and broadcast to the world. Even if they are taken down, cached versions of web pages can still be viewed, copied, and re-posted. Images and text can be copied and re-posted. Even corrupted and deleted files can be easily retrieved.
Aside from causing major embarrassment and ruining friendships and romantic relationships, online lapses in judgment can cost people jobs. In fact, companies now perform online searches for employers to see if job candidates have any red flags in their web presence. If these companies find offensive comments posted on blogs, sexually explicit photos or videos, photos that show drug use or an excessive fondness for automatic weapons, the flags go up.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protects job candidates from being discriminated against due to age, gender, religion, disability, national origin, and race, but that doesn’t stop recruiters from doing their own online research. A recent New York Times article stated that 75 percent of recruiters are required to do online research on candidates, and 70 percent admit to rejecting applicants based on information they find online.
How can people take responsibility for their web presence and avoid making a mistake online that really will go into their Permanent Record?
In the book Public and Permanent: The Golden Rule of the 21st Century, author Richard Guerry argues that you should think of everything you do electronically as both public and permanent:
When you post information to the World Wide Web about yourself or someone else, you are communicating as part of an intimate global community. You are essentially posting information on a community bulletin board in the town square…. Once your content has been seen and shared by even just one other person… in the global village, you can never definitively remove the information from the knowledge base of the community because anyone who has seen and saved it, can at any time, put it right back up on the bulletin board, or anywhere else in the community, whenever they want and without your permission or knowledge.
In the book, Guerry provides several examples of how information people thought was private became public, through the machinations of predators, but also through people’s misunderstanding the nature of digital communication. He argues that the best way people can protect themselves is by developing their digital consciousness. You can help your students protect themselves by informing them about the pitfalls of electronic information, and the ease and frequency of its misappropriation. It doesn’t matter that you don’t plan to share your digital photos with anyone, or that you have to use a password to access your Facebook page or your email account, or that you send videos or images only to people you trust. Don’t record anything or send anything to anyone that you are not willing to be both public and permanent.
Guerry suggests this self-assessment tip: Before you do anything with a camera, cell phone, or computer, imagine the person who means the most to you in the world standing over your shoulder. If you’re OK with that person seeing what you’re about to do, and you’re OK with what you’re about to do becoming part of your permanent legacy, go ahead. If not, don’t do it.
For more cyber-safety tips, check out:
Social Networking Sites: Safety Tips for Tweens and Teens from the Federal Trade Commission
Cyberethics for Kids: Rules in Cyberspace from the Department of Justice