Fleas in a Bottle?: Will Social Networking Stymie Personal Development of Youth?

Recently I was giving a workshop on digital footprints at the CUEBC Conference Saturday at Simon Frazer University, Vancouver, BC. A digital footprint is the collection of all the traces you leave in electronic environments as you use or move through them. Some is content you actively volunteer—like your Facebook profile. Other material is passive—the cookies a site stores in your browser, the content your district collects about your use of their equipment, etc. All this data can be aggregated to build a profile of you and your behavior—to profile you in the FBI-sense of the word. The PEW Report, Digital Footprints (2007) states that what can be found and assembled through a simple Google search today, used to take a private investigator months to do. We tweet where we are and what we’re doing complete with pictures. Social networking profiles itemize our likes & dislikes, our friends & families. As PEW (2007) states, we’ve crossed from being “findable” to “knowable” .

We are living in an unprecedented era with regard to digital footprints. Mashable posted a recent article by L. Indvik (October 10, 2010) citing that 92% of all toddlers in the US and 81% internationally, already have a digital footprint. This would be a passive footprint as it would be data posted about those children versus data they post themselves. Further, Indvik (2010) cites that 23% of children have a prenatal presence—like sonogram images and such posted before birth. For these toddlers and the unborn, their digital footprint will encompass just about their entire lives. Contrast that to adults in their 30’s-40’s (I’m in there): for us, our digital footprints will stretch back about 15-20 years (Indvik, 2010). In between these groups are the tweens, teens & twenty-somethings—let me call them the 3T’s—who are just starting out with their digital footprint—often in the absence of good judgment or good adult modeling.

For those of us in our 30’s & 40’s,  our digital footprints began at just about the same time we were entering mature adulthood. I know there are exceptions, but by–in-large we would have started posting at about the same time our impulse control, and mature thought processes of foresight, etc. were emerging. This is in stark contrast to the 3T’s who often started posting when their impulse control, long range projections and overall mature thought processes were barely emerging. I would argue that their age, lack of foresight, discipline/personal control coupled with the emergence of social networking and lack of elders’ scaffolding in those networks created a “perfect storm” that will adversely affect their digital footprint in a way 30/40 somethings and beyond will rarely experience. (My position that society & educators abdicated their responsibilities in regard to preparing these young people to handle this technology–but that’s for a later post.) Some of the 3T’s most thoughtless and foolish actions are being chronicled for the world before they have the opportunity to reflect upon them and decide if sharing them with the world & posterity is a good long term strategy.

What will be the effects? Will these young people be labeled for life because of young foolish indiscretions?

When we were talking in the session, I likened it to growing up in a small town where everyone knows your business. For example, there’s a woman in my small community—in her late 30’s holding down a respectable job, mother of a few kids, who during her wilder teen years got drunk and jumped on the hood of someone’s new car with her boots on. She damaged the car, but ultimately paid for repairs. To many people in our community, she will forever be labeled. She will be that woman-who-got-drunk-&-jumped-on-X’s-new car-in-high-school. Of course, she could have always moved to another town or bigger town where she’d be relatively anonymous. Quite often that’s what people do if the situation becomes too uncomfortable—at least that’s what they did before the advent of the Internet, high powered search engines, identity aggregators and social networking. That got me thinking about the fleas-in-the-bottle analogy used by Zig Ziglar. If you’ve never read it or heard it—fleas are confined to a bottle and when the bottle is removed they continue to jump roughly within the confines of where the bottle was. They have been conditioned. (There used to be a video on YouTube showing the fleas, but I’ve been unable to find it. If anyone knows where it is, please let me know and I’ll add it here.) For our youth, the questions I pose are:

  • Will the 3T’s (tweens, teens & twenty-somethings) of our time forever be constrained by the behavior they published on MySpace, Tagged, Bebo & Facebook—or that others have posted about them?
  • Will they be the proverbial fleas in the bottle? Will it hinder their ability to move past the youthful indiscretions onto productive adulthood?

During the workshop, I also spoke about the need for professionals to unfollow or unfriend individuals in a social network who post problematic content (discriminatory language, off-colour jokes, sexual content/comments, etc.) that would reflect poorly on the teachers’ professional standards/code of ethics (BCCT Standards, BCTF Code of Ethics, etc.). I explained that though you may not repost the content you see in your network (like retweeting it in Twitter), if the problematic content is in the other person’s public stream (e.g. a public Twitter stream), and the person is publicly visible in your network (e.g. your Twitter “home page” who you’re following ), that person’s problematic content will be associated with you. I advise people to contact the network member privately and state that though you valued his/her previous content, the current statements would reflect poorly on you professionally—and that for professional reasons you will be unfollowing/unfriending/unnetworking him/her. It is my belief that if you simply click unfollow because they post offensive content, people may never know that the content is offensive and affecting their digital footprint. Sending a private message can be a teaching/learning opportunity.

One of the attendees looked at it from a different perspective:

  • What happens when all the more socially and politically correct people unfollow/unfriend/unnetwork the problematic ones?
  • Wouldn’t that leave all the politically incorrect “fleas” in a smaller bottle reinforcing each other in their politically & socially incorrect views?

What will the impact of the perfect storm be on youth development? What will its impact be on toddlers and unborn who already have digital footprints? Will they be Ziglar’s Fleas in a Bottle?

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6 Responses to Fleas in a Bottle?: Will Social Networking Stymie Personal Development of Youth?

  1. Fleas in a Bottle?: Will Social Networking Stymie Personal ……

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shane Skillen, Personal Development. Personal Development said: Fleas in a Bottle?: Will Social Networking Stymie Personal … http://bit.ly/98npF1 […]

  3. Marty Orya says:

    Reputation management becomes even more important with the popularity of social networking sites today. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more laws enacted limiting the amount of time data can be stored, requiring more privacy controls, etc. Not that those things would necessarily help if something goes viral.

  4. Helen Thistlethwaite says:

    Excellent article. Jounalists won’t have to travel far now to “dig up dirt”, good or bad on public figures or any person who captures their interest. I agree entirely that the 3Ts should have some education about what they “put out there” before their fingers start to fly!! HT

  5. Blair Miller says:

    Despite the ‘memory’ of the World Wide Web through the Internet Archive and the ongoing records of social networking sites, I tend to feel that the consequences of poor profile management have more impact for people in the short-term than the long-term. The sheer volume of information being generated on social networking sites makes the indiscrete postings less obvious in the long-term. Students are much more likely to suffer harm from immediate social effects of indiscrete postings in their teen years. In addition, if they are unaware of the need for management of their digital footprints, the long-term patterns of repeated poor judgement in posting of material could lead to a less than favourable impression being left with those researching their background.

    In terms of one’s extended social network, I feel the same principle applies. If I follow one or two people on Twitter who post “offensive” material or language occasionally I don’t think it reflects poorly on me. When I look to follow someone, I look at the tweets they send out themselves and for commonalities in who we follow. However, I also follow people in other subject areas, industries and with other points of view because I think it is important in challenging ones thinking. It is unlikely that someone is going to click through my profile, see my tweets/comments/blog posts and then click on each person who I follow to see what they tweet. Of course it is possible, but I would argue unlikely. However, I would agree with you that it is not unwarranted to Direct Message that person with a comment about why you were offended by material they posted and the effect it could have on them as professionals.

    Interesting topic and one that definitely needs more discussion and consideration in schools. However, in my experience it has to be done in a way that gets away from just “don’t post bad things, it will come back to hurt you” – at this point students shut off because they are already aware of this. What they don’t know is what proper management looks like, which is where your point on modelling is crucial.

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