If your son or daughter is online, it’s highly likely that they are also on social networking sites.  Fully 95% of all teens ages 12-17 are now on social media sites according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.  Teenagers today use social media to connect and keep up with their friends, to express themselves and to broadcast their accomplishments, interests, friendships and social lives.

Although there are numerous social benefits to socializing online, there are also some very real dangers, and some of the information that our teenagers post and send through their social networking sites can put them at risk of being targeted by strangers, cyberbullies and others with ill-intent.  Additionally, our kids lack the critical thinking skills that come with age and maturity, and so, at times, the information they post online may also reflect negatively on them to future employers and college administrators.

As reported in the Pew Study, while the majority of teenagers who have a social media profile say the profile they use most often is set to be private so that only their friends can see the content they post, 19% say their profile is only partially set to private, and another 17% say their profile is set to public so that everyone can see it.  To complicate matters more, only a little over half of teens (55%) report thinking critically about posting content online due to the possibility of negative implications of their online actions, meaning that almost half of teens aren’t thinking critically about the content that they post, potentially in full public view.

Additionally, in our hyper-sexualized world, I’ve had to have many conversations with teens about their choices to post their pictures in porn star poses and barely there outfits.  A stranger, predator or potential employer would develop a quick opinion by viewing some of the provocative pictures our young boys and girls post.  Some have posted lyrics from their favorite rap and pop songs that include references to drugs, alcohol, sex and crass language, and when their profiles are not set to private, any potential college administrator may use this type of content to make a negative judgment about their applicant.

As a parent, it’s critical that we stay on top of our kids are doing online and talk to them about using privacy settings on all of their social networking accounts.  Remind your kids to think before they post.  If they wouldn’t want a college admissions officer or future employer to see some of the content they’ve placed online, it’s probably better that it’s taken down from their online record.  Sit down with your kids and ask them what they think the images and content they’ve posted online says about them and what type of messages they are sending.  Remember not to overreact—out kids are feeling a lot of pressure to perform and live up to our media and celebrity standard, but it’s up to us to help them grow in wisdom, restraint and to develop self control in their online and offline lives.

Check out our Social Networking Critical Issues site resources for more on protecting your kids online.