This post first appeared on The Huffington Post Screen Sense Blog.
OK, first off, let's bridge the learning gap here. Not to insult anyone's intelligence, but if you're like me, you're probably struggling to keep up with your teen's vocabulary, which is likely growing at an exponential rate and not exactly in a way that might help her ace her SATs.
Thus, you may not know exactly what a "selfie" is. Lucky for us (I think), the term was Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year for 2013.Here's their definition:
selfie- (n.) a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website
Simple enough, right? But do teens and selfies mix?
The Upside of Selfies
Though your first instinct may be to cringe in fear and horror at the very notion of your teen posting any selfie at all on the web, not all selfies are terrible. In fact, actor and "selfie king" James Franco claims they're the closest we'll get to really knowing the essence of a stranger via social media, and as lofty as that may seem, the selfie has been known to serve even more noble purposes. Apparently, it saved a battered woman's life after her husband disconnected the landline in their home.
For young people (and let's face it, grown-ups too), selfies can be, and often are, vain attempts at garnering attention, but they can also be powerful form of self-expression, especially when they are: a) tasteful and b) taken from a positive frame of mind.
I recently chatted with a former student of mine about the selfie phenomenon. I asked her to think about her motivations for snapping and sharing pictures of herself online, and although she admitted that she enjoyed receiving compliments from her friends, she said the real reason she posted was for herself: "I am on a 80 lb. weight loss journey and have lost 10 pounds so far. I want to look back and she how far I have come when or if I get discouraged."
She also echoed Rachel Simmons, who said this of selfies in a controversial post: "It puts the gaze of the camera squarely in a girl's hands, and along with it, the power to influence the photo's interpretation."
Denecia agrees, saying selfies are good "because you control the photo. I am more confident if I can control it." She also had some very savvy advice for teens: "Update your privacy settings to reflect only who you want to see your photos. Keep in mind that jobs, schools and organizations can possibly see what you post, so be smart. Remember that pictures are worth a thousand words and you want those words to be positive."
Unfortunately, selfies have become so common that many teens often don't think twice before snapping and sharing. Not all selfies are positive or even safe, though, and your child needs to know the difference between an innocent photo and a potentially dangerous situation. If your teen is posting self-snapped pictures online, schedule a face-to-face chat ASAP. Below are a few tips to start with.
Think Location, Location, Location
As with any pictures your child shares on social media, he or she should be careful not to reveal any private information, especially regarding location, when posting selfies. Many social media platforms and apps have GPS features that tag photos with the sender's location. This is a dream-come-true for a child predator. Avoid these apps altogether or at a minimum, disable any GPS capabilities that could clue a stranger in on your child's actual location.
Go one step further and teach your child to scrutinize photos for other details that may reveal his or her location such as street signs and landmarks. Even something as innocuous as a high school logo on a T-shirt or gym bag can tip a predator off to a child's whereabouts.
Zoom in on Reputation
Tell your child that posting something online is like writing with a Sharpie -- it's permanent. Selfies, of course, are no exception. As my former student pointed out, your child's online presence will likely be evaluated in the future by recruiters, admissions counselors and employers, so reputation management is a necessity. Advise your child not to post selfies that are immodest or potentially offensive. The best selfies are those that express contentment and self-confidence.
It's also important to know that selfies are sometimes used by teens for the purpose of sexting. Clearly communicate to your child the potentially public nature of any sort of texting, and let him or her know that is never OK to send a revealing picture to anyone, even if it supposed to be kept private. Even Snapchats, which purportedly disappear within seconds, can be captured with a screenshot and shared with the whole world in an instant. I don't have to tell you how damaging such a situation would be to any teen's self-esteem and reputation.
Everything in Moderation
As the saying goes, everything is better in moderation, and this includes selfies. Posting too many pictures of oneself can be perceived as desperate, vain or at the very least, obsessive. If you decide it's OK for your child to post selfies, advise him or her to post them every now and then, not daily.
According to a Pew Internet survey, 91% of teens have posted a picture of themselves online, and pop singer Justin Bieber recently launched an app devoted wholly to the self-pic phenomenon. Like it or not, by all indications, selfies are here to stay, so be sure your teen is selfie savvy before it's too late.