In August 2016, Karlie Hay saw her dream of being named Miss Teen USA come true. But within hours, the 18-year-old landed in a much harsher spotlight when a series of tweets in which she used racial slurs surfaced.
Karlie took responsibility for her actions and apologized, but the incident served as a reminder of something that often gets overlooked, particularly among younger users: While our digital lives may seem “virtual” and separate from our real lives, they're very much connected. And in today’s world, a casual text, Facebook comment or tweet can become a serious problem.
Janell Burley Hofmann, a mother of five and author of iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing Up became an unexpected expert in the topic three years ago when her oldest child turned 13.
“He was pining for a smartphone,” says Janell, who was active in advocacy work and parenting programs at the time. “I was already seeing how technology was becoming central to a lot of conversations about family life, so I saw this as an opportunity to stop and think about what we want—not only from technology, but from life.”
Before giving her son a smartphone, Janell created an 18-point contract that outlined the specifics for its use. Emphasizing such things as courtesy, respect and learning, the contract also reminded him to put down the phone and look at the real world. After writing a column about it for Huffington Post, the contract went viral.
“I realized this was a global conversation,” she says, noting that the contract has since been translated into 12 languages. “All of us are part of this conversation.”
Not just for kids
Today, she has opened up that conversation to parents, schools, businesses and organizations. Central to Janell’s work is the idea of your “digital character,” or how you portray yourself online. It’s not just tweens and teens who are making missteps across the digital universe; adults are often just as culpable. Her message of building our digital character is designed for children and their parents alike.
“Knowing how we want to appear online is a choice,” she says. “So much of the time we make comments or post things without thinking about it. But we can develop our digital character, and that can influence our relationships and who we want to be.”
She suggests putting the same kind of thought into our digital well-being as we do into things like our health and nutrition. That begins with being more mindful of how (and how much) we use technology.
“When we are aware of our digital habits, we can meet the needs of our real lives, whether that means learning to be fully present instead of watching our phone, or learning that we can finish a meal without answering our texts.”
We also can become more aware of how the things we post or even “like” reflect who we are. Getting caught up in online rants or arguments serves no purpose and once said can live eternally in the digital space. They can cause rifts between family and friends or cause hurt feelings and anger on both sides.
“It’s time to think about how we want to use our energy. And think about what it’s doing to you. If you find yourself clenching your jaw, or your heartbeat goes up and you’re getting mad, it’s probably not the best use of your energy.”
Building digital character
On the flipside, the digital space is also a great way to practice being your best self. Janell says looking for positive ways to interact online, such as using humor or reaching out to others with compassion, is a great way to use our time online.
“It’s easy to forget sometimes that it’s not a private conversation. Think about the reach you have in your own set of [online] friends and then think about what happens if that gets shared,” she says. “Even if we put something in a private text, it can become public very quickly. Nothing is private anymore, even with privacy settings. We need to be willing to stand behind what we’re saying.”
She advises using the “billboard test” before sending out a text, tweet or post: Imagine it being on a billboard outside your office, home or school. Would you still be as eager to send that thought out into the world?
“You don’t need to be all sunshine and lollipops, but how we handle situations online can strengthen us in every way. If we strengthen our [character] online, we strengthen the quality of our character overall,” Janell says.
Visit Janell Burley Hofmann's website to find out more about iRules and how you can promote good online character within your own family.
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy magazine.