Danah Boyd describes in “It’s Complicated” that cultural shifts are often met with “Moral Panic“. Parents in the 1950’s were convinced that Rock and Roll music would corrupt their children, a notion that seems laughable now. This pattern repeats with each successive generation adopting a new reason for parents to overreact and “protect” their children. It used to be television that made teens more violent, now it’s video games.

Boyd explains that this phenomenon has also affected digital culture and social media. In the early days of social media the great fear was of sexual predators trapping children and young teens through fake online profiles. This fear was spread wide through TV shows such as “To Catch A Predator”. where TV producers made up fake profiles to try to trap older men. The show presented an online world where older men are lurking to trap young girls.

We seem to have passed the online predator panic, have moved through the panic about Sexting, and are now full in the throws of panic over “reputation damage”.

The focus of the “reputation damage” panic is that if teens don’t carefully manage their online posts they’ll ruin their future. Just as The MySpace Generation were told that online communities were awash with sexual predators, so now are teens sombrely counselled control their online reputation, or they’ll ruin their prospects of getting into a good school or getting a job. Students are told to think carefully before they post anything and carefully “manage their brand” (ugh).

The notion that social media is just a giant job and university application board is small-minded and plain deceptive. Social media is also a place where students can express themselves, where they can be vulnerable, where they can ask for help and where isolated teens can just connect with peers. Do educators really want an “in crisis” teen not to post, asking for help, because it might negatively affect their online brand?

As professor Sonia Livingstone, a professor at The London School of Economics explains, the panic over the potential negative effects of social media are unbalanced and overstated: “The Internet is not quite the fearsome Wild West that sometimes it’s made out to be”.

There are many examples of teens using online forums to share their concerns and fears and get support from peers. Facebook Compliment Pages are one of many ways that teens and young adults have used social media to support each other and express themselves.

If the goal of digital citizenship is merely to scare students into compliance the risks are two-fold. Firstly, many students will know, through their own experiences, that we’re lying about what social media is, and the important and necessary message about caution will be lost. Secondly, we’ll be robbing some students of a very important and needed vehicle for them to express themselves, connect with others or get support. These students will shun open social media altogether, preferring instead to remain completely anonymous online rather than risk “ruining their life“.

Students need to learn more than how to protect themselves online. They need to learn how to be exemplary digital citizens. A good citizen doesn’t stay locked behind secure gates. A citizen engages with the wider community, contributing, helping others when they can and asking for help when they need it.

Students also need to know that making a mistake online, posting something they shouldn’t, isn’t fatal. That it won’t ruin their lives. Learning is about taking chances, screwing up, learning from it and moving on. It’s hard for students to do that when all they’ve been told is to do is to manage their brand.