Do you remember when you were a kid, staying a little too long in public restrooms reading the writing on the wall? Did you ever notice that there’s very little writing today? It’s because social media has replaced writing on the bathroom wall

It’s not an official replacement but it’s an example of how so much of what you are trying to protect kids from is the very same type of communication you used for your own self-directed learning as a kid.

As Generation Y was coming of age on Facebook, nearly a decade ago, I remember Rebecca Blood, the gold standard for online copy editing, wrote that parents should stop trying to tell their kids how to manage themselves online because the parents have no idea what to say.

She was right. It turns out that Generation Y manages themselves online like they are celebrities. And the best guides for how to do that were the celebrities themselves. And now, of course, Generation Y is fine. Employers don’t care what’s on your Facebook page.

Now that Gen Y has grown up, and social media has too, we’re looking at the second generation of social media mavens. And their social value will be determined by their social profile. Online. The Atlantic calls it the reputation economy.

We can discuss the pros and cons of the reputation economy. (Pro: it’s a meritocracy. Con: the meritocracy rewards the skills of self-promotion.) But it’s sort of  like debating the pros and cons of judging people by their looks. It’s entrenched and not going away.

So a smart parent would teach their kid how to manage themselves in a reputation economy. You would need to know, for example, that having a domain name that is your own name is totally outdated: Generation Z has crazy names for their online identity.

(This is a lot like domain names in general, by the way. All the real names are taken. I used a made up word for my most recent startup and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to come up with a brand new word that is not already someone else’s domain name. It’s why I used Brand Bucket. They are geniuses for thinking of company names and reselling them to the less name-obsessed of us who need a name nonetheless.)

How do you prepare your kid for a reputation economy:

1. Let them write for an audience instead of a teacher. The reputation economy is based on how you communicate online. It’s difficult to write in a way that makes people want to read. Stanford studied kids writing for a teacher and kids writing for a wider, Internet-based audience and found that kids learn much faster  to be much more effective communicators from writing for the Internet. Elite schools realize this, which is why school porn to advertise rich-kid schools always show kids with laptops. (The photo up top of an impossibly quaint Swedish school is a good example.)

2. Let them spend their time exploring online. The reputation economy will be about new ways to communicate value. Harvard education professor Howard Gardner talks about the ways we will think in the new generation – it will be information gathering, synthesizing, analyzing. You might say we’ve had those skills for generations, but not with infinite information. Today we produce more information in a week than we did in the first 1000 years of writing.

3. Encourage kids to be creators instead of consumers. Traditional school is where you listen, so you how to learn, what to learn, when to learn. The reputation economy is about being an active creator which means you cannot depend on people to spoon-feed you information. Wikipedia, StackOverflow, Quora: these are all collaborative, self-directed ways that people are learning by creating.  The way your kid will learn to manage their reputation is by understanding how to contribute in a meaningful way to collaborative, information-processing communities.

For many of you, this shift to a reputation economy seems impossible. Here’s something to consider: I have a standing invitation to airport lounges on various airlines all over the world because my own social reputation is highly ranked by Klout.

This is not to say that I use the perk. I don’t. And, frankly, I’m not sure I’d even know how to cash in on the kudos. Which is to say that I’m as inept as you are at managing how my kid positions himself for the reputation economy. Which is why I leave my kids alone online.


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14 replies
  1. sarah
    sarah says:

    I agree, but my hang up comes from my kids running into porn. It already happened, which is what made me realise it needs to be a concern. I havent found a safe guard I like.

    My husband was hired with a large corporation, and the degree requirement (which he does not have ) was over looked, due to his social skills. My kids maybe poor in math, but will be great at communicating.

    • Jana Miller
      Jana Miller says:

      We liked spectorsoft for monitoring our kids online. It runs in the background and our kids basically forgot it was on their computers. (You can access the data from your own laptop once it’s installed.)

      We didn’t block sites. It takes screen shots and alerts you if you want. It also collects keystrokes. This allowed us to have conversations with our kids while giving them the freedom to make good choices and self monitor.

  2. Leigh Shulman
    Leigh Shulman says:

    I also agree, except when it comes to basic personal security.

    My daughter is 9yo, and when a stranger with a cartoon avatar tries to chat with her on Skype or a kids’ online game, I want her to know how to handle it.

    She’s an open talkative person and generally is happy to answer questions and interact. I think it’s important she understands that just because someone appears a certain way online, doesn’t mean that’s who they are.

    I also teach 14-18yo students at local schools where I live in Argentina. My students’ parents want to be sure that their kids aren’t getting into trouble. My definition of trouble and theirs probably differs, but ultimately, I give similar guidelines as I do to my daughter.

    Know who you are talking to. There’s no need to give out identifying information, e-mail addresses, phone numbers and the like. You don’t have to accept requests from people you don’t know. If you feel uncomfortable, block.

    Aside from that? I trust my daughter and students to ask questions when they have them.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I know what you mean – we have lots of conversations in our house about how you can’t give the town you live in and you can’t send a photo. I am not even sure if these are good rules, it’s just that I want to have some rule so I feel like a responsible parent.

      But sometimes when I think about kids falling prey to people online, I think that it’s probably a much bigger risk that kids fall prey to adults parents let into the house. I mean, most sexual predator events happen with an adult who is known to the family.

      Sometimes I think that being scared of online predators is like being scared of plane crashes. People in the home and crashes in the car are so much more likely, just it’s harder to focus on that.


      • Leigh
        Leigh says:

        Oh, I’m not talking about fear. I’m talking about giving kids the tools to handle it on their own. It’s hard enough for adults to know how to handle scams and predators online.

        I also don’t necessarily assume that everyone is a predator, I simply have specific guidelines I follow that allow me to know that the person with whom I’m interacting online is someone I want in my circles.

        My daughter has been approached by strangers numerous times to chat. I don’t know who they are or what they want, but I do think it’s important for her to know she has a choice. I also want her to know how to research a person and know who they are before talking to them.

        I don’t give her guidelines any different from the ones I follow. Kwim?

      • Leigh
        Leigh says:

        I posted a response before, but it doesn’t seem to have registered. So I apologize if you get more than one of the same from me.

        That said, I don’t mean to teach these things from a place of fear. Fear in these cases makes it harder to be rational and make good choices.

        In fact, whenever I see any group or person who tries to instruct through fear, I assume they have an agenda and don’t want me to think for myself.

        Instead, I teach guidelines. They are the same guidelines I use when interacting with people online. I don’t talk to anonymous people. Not just because they may be dangerous, but quite frankly, it could be a massive waste of my time.

        I want to know who I’m talking to. Do they have a website? A FB page? Can I know who they are based on their internet reputation?

        If I can’t, I don’t bother. Kwim?

  3. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    Here I sit so broken hearted.
    Tried to blog but barely started.

    I agree with PT that much of the internet is the modern-day equivalent of the bathroom wall. I disagree about the centrality of the physical or virtual bathroom wall to an adolescent’s individuation. I believe it is no more vital to my child’s self-directed learning than it was to mine. Amusing, distracting, largely harmless, yes. But not central.

    All three of PT’s points are helpful and would bear further development. Abandoning children to an unsupervised, unlimited, and unguided diet of bathroom wall scribbling, however, would not be the shortest path to productive adulthood any more than an unmitigated diet of cheetos and cake would be the best road to physical health.

    The reputation economy of the online persona has its place. But it is not the entirety of the person; if it is, it is so only for exceedingly shallow people. Nor is it any more necessary to today’s student than to yesterday’s that he be admired by strangers. The quest for such shallow fame may be a serious distraction from more fundamental development.

    The future importance of the online reputation economy has surely been over-hyped at this point. I find it equally likely that twenty years from now a majority of significant online personae will be function-specific, disassociated with offline persons, and abandoned upon doxing. The public persona will be vanilla and little used for all but a minority of people.

    It is a fair and perennial point that what I think will be useful for my child’s career two decades from now is a poor standard for guiding my child’s day. However, we can feel sure that today’s Sky Does Minecraft will not be more vital to his success twenty years from now than Shakespeare.

  4. mh
    mh says:

    Personally, I see the value in preparing my kids for an online economy as well as for an emergency situations. Learn marksmanship, grow and prepare food, learn first aid and preparedness. Learn the many uses of tarps and duct tape. Read the classics.

    This is about as far from an online persona as it is possible to be.

    Daily worry: will my kids be schizophrenic? Or just really, really well prepared?

    Daily question: when wil Penelope permit edited comments?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      What are edited comments?

      And, also, I worry about schizophrenia. Most of the time you don’t know til your kid’s in his or her early 20s. Such a long time to wait to find out.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Edited comments.
        There is a plug-in on this page ( ) named Ajax Edit Comments that allows users to edit their own comments for a limited time. Administrators can edit all comments on the front-end. That’s one plug-in as an example.
        mh – I’m still lol (with you) on your last sentence in your comment – “Daily question: when wil Penelope permit edited comments?” – as “wil” is misspelled. :)

  5. Ashley Wells
    Ashley Wells says:

    I agree with this blog teaching kids to be an independent is a great idea to build their personality and mind, they become less reliant on you and gain greater independence in all aspects of their lives.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    A copy edit – “The Atlantic calls it the reputation economy.” – which should read “Wired magazine calls it the reputation economy.” based on the link included in the sentence. A great article which I really liked.

  7. Dee
    Dee says:

    While the ease on commute and saving time and resources are positives of online teaching, high speed internet and good power supply are certain restrictions.

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