Internet Issues and Credibility

I am still writing about the Harvard Graduate School of Education report on young people, ethics, and social media.  My series started with an introduction, and I have so far delved into the topics of identity, privacy, and ownership/authorship.  I am boiling down the report to a quicker read for those who don’t want to read the whole thing, and then I am talking about how it applies and speaks to the home life and parenting.  Today I am writing about credibility and tomorrow on participation (which is a huge topic!).  You can download the full original report from my introduction or you can just follow along in my synopses and descriptions.

While I was due to write about credibility on Friday, I decided to leave it until after the weekend instead.  Credibility seems like a pretty cut-and-dry issue to me, and I wasn’t sure how debating or weighing sides of whether or not someone is fully honest about their credentials was going to be.  The vignette described at the beginning of the chapter as emblematic of the ethical dilemma did not give me confidence: it is of a young woman claiming that she is “state certified” in an online environment, gets physical fitness clients based on the claim, and then gets called out by her in-real-life (IRL) boss.  I can see and talk about the ethical issues in regards to identity, privacy, and ownership/authorship, but I just didn’t think I would be very sympathetic on this one.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Rather than talking about credibility in the same way that they had addressed other issues, the authors of the report framed the issue differently.  First they wrote of the benefits that young people can receive through being involved in an environment that is quite young itself, and so comparatively high levels of authority, knowledge, and experience and therefore credibility, can be gained relatively quickly when compared to the off-line world.  This is itself a good thing for young people, the authors claim, pointing to the potential for increased perspectives, feelings of efficacy, and responsibility.

The downsides of ethically-questionable credibility claims – or at least the ability to make these claims quickly and easily – are somewhat more obvious.  The authors suggest that it can lead young people to undervalue actual credibility and therefore be uninterested in gaining the knowledge and experience that suggest actual credibility.

Truly most interesting for me in reading this section of the report, though, was the authors’ conversations about how and where young people might learn that misrepresenting themselves and their credentials online is acceptable.

The point about credentials is that they can sound and feel a lot like identity.  It is easy to go from “I like to work out” to “I like to help other people work out” to “I am a personal trainer.”  This is particularly the case for a young person who has less experience with actual credentials.  As I wrote about in the portion on identity, young people almost always toy with their identity in their online.  This is a developmentally appropriate and expected trajectory.  The problem arises in the relatively subtle difference between identity and credentials, particularly for someone new to the idea of licensing and credentialing.

The other particular issue that the report brings up is the relative dearth of experienced mentors to help young people navigate the ins-and-outs of online representations.  The report states the problem in this way: “the vast gulf between the average adult’s understanding of the new media and the ways young people engage with it virtually precludes good mentoring” (pg 36).

These are all stellar issues – and so pertinent to the idea of how to help young people navigate online identities.


So what does all this mean to you, your children, and your home?  Ultimately this report is essentially one long advertisement for the need that young people have for mentors to help navigate their online identities.  The conversation is somewhat more dire, however, in regards to claims of credentialing because if these are misrepresented, that can have a lasting professional impact that goes far beyond the teenage years.

However, finding an adult who is familiar with social media and the ways young people interact within those media, and who are able to form a trusting bond with young people can be a daunting task.  The particular difficulty is that the young person must also trust their mentor, believe what they say, and put it into action in their online identity.  The long-range risk factors involved, though, suggest that it is well worth the effort.  What you should be looking for in a person to fill this spot is someone who (1) has deep knowledge and experience with social media and who (2) enjoys the young person in question and has a good relationship with him or her.  If someone like this doesn’t leap immediately to mind, think over the adults in the young person’s life who might be able to learn more about social media, maybe even from the young person themselves.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.