Talk to Your Teenager About Digital Literacy

For most working adults, posting inappropriate or inflammatory content online could result in negative consequences professionally. A responsible and mature adult should be able to understand the cause and effect of this behavior, but what about a still-developing teenager who’s just getting started in life?

I teach a social media marketing college course and speak to students about building a positive digital footprint. I’ve noticed that while there is universal knowledge about how to use social networking sites like Snapchat and Instagram, many young people have not yet fully grasped that what they share online can derail their college and career plans before they get off the ground.

For example, in June, Harvard rescinded the acceptance of 10 students due to racist Facebook posts. And there are other, similar stories about students’ bad behavior online that dominate news headlines. While there are deeper issues at play in the Harvard story, as these incidents occur with more frequency, conversations about digital literacy are no longer optional. They’re unavoidable.

This conversation is especially crucial for black teenagers. A survey released in April by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reported that black teens lead the way in access to smartphones, are most active on social media apps, and use several messaging apps interchangeably. They are early adopters and trendsetters in smartphone technology, but how are they using it?

A digital literacy conversation isn’t a call to avoid social media and media-related activities. It’s about teaching teenagers—and young people in general—how to be responsible digital citizens.

Talking to a teen about this subject can be intimidating. As digital natives, today’s teens don’t know a time without smartphones and high-speed internet. And they often teach their parents how to use technology. Armed with the right information parents, teachers, and mentors can serve as the first line of defense in teaching digital literacy.

Try including digital literacy in conversations about interests in colleges, trade schools, and careers. These conversations happen naturally over time and digital literacy is a good fit. Here are four tips to pass along:

  • Always consider the tone and relevance of content before sharing online or texting, not after. This is a basic, but important reminder. What you share represents who you are.
  • Read the terms and conditions of social media sites to learn privacy conditions, data policies, and safety rules. This might sound like a bore, but understanding how profile information and profile data is being used online puts you in better control of your digital footprint.
  • Create a social media account specifically to use on college, trade school, and first job applications. On this profile share academic accolades, awards, personal interests, pictures of community service work, and other positive content to demonstrate talents and skills. LinkedIn is a good place to start. High schoolers, particularly juniors and seniors, should do this sooner rather than later.
  • Don’t just consume media, create it and put it to good use. Write a short essay or produce a short video on a subject of interest. Share this content on your new, more polished, social media account.

There are advertising campaigns that encourage parents to have conversations with teenagers about safe sex, drinking, and drugs. It’s time to add digital literacy to the mix to help them build a positive path to their futures, one post at a time.



Kristina B. Hill, M.S., is a Charlotte-area social media marketing instructor, speaker, and communications professional.