July 30, 2008

Be Cautious With Personal Electronic Information

By Megan Bode

I read a magazine story about Facebook and future presidential elections. It dealt with how easily accessible electronic information might spoil the chances of would-be candidates. A few days later, I happened to catch a television statistic that reported how many friends Barack Obama and John McCain each had on MySpace.

The article certainly wasn't the first I'd seen about the danger that Facebook and MySpace pose to young people's futures as adult members of society. In college and law school, countless seminars and speakers warned us about the fact that anyone can access anything we put on the Internet.

I've been taught how to set the privacy restrictions on my Facebook page, told to "de-tag" any less-than-flattering photos, and instructed to delete any visible messages left by others that might reflect poorly on my character.

At first, I shrugged off the advice, thinking that people were being overly cautious, figuring that my far-less-than-scandalous lifestyle would keep me safe. Nothing on my Facebook page was so awful that it would preclude me from getting a job or making connections.

But then I began to hear stories. Falsified, "Photoshopped," but strangely real-looking images of people were popping up online and damaging their relationships with significant others and family members.

A college senior who found out a friend had posted photos of their night on the town didn't take them down quickly enough -- a mistake that cost him a coveted second-round interview with a potential employer. New associates, savvy with social-networking sites, were asked by employers to check out job applicants' MySpace pages and report back with any concerns.

After hearing these tales, I made certain to change my privacy settings on Facebook, just to be on the safe side. Still, I'm well aware that there's always a way around the latest security feature.

I wonder: How will my friends and I feel if the information we have online now still is around or somehow accessible in 15 years? Ostensibly, I could have a 10-year-old by then. How would I feel if he or she were to see a picture of me with a drink in my 19-year- old hand?

It's more than just employers that we have to worry about. It's our future children and their friends, or the new neighbors in the town where we choose to settle down, or people who, for one reason or another, don't take a liking to us.

When I was a child, my parents reminded me constantly of an old adage: "There's never a second chance to make a first impression." In the past, that meant a firm handshake, a nice smile and honesty. These days, in addition to our real-life reputations, we have to worry about our virtual first impressions, as well.

Despite the fact that this issue has been highly publicized, many kids and young adults still aren't listening -- just as I hadn't when I first blew off some well-intentioned advice. And I hate to continue hearing stories about how too-prevalent, too-personal electronic information is hurting young people, especially when the Internet has no expiration date, and we have yet to see the long- term effects of the social-networking revolution.

We have to be vigilant and constantly monitor our Internet personas as we would our real-life reputations. Now more than ever, the two are one and the same.

Megan Bode lives in Upper St. Clair.

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