Could Your Face Go Viral?

And three other essential questions that will test your online image IQ

No doubt you value your ability to sometimes stay hidden on social media—whether that’s sticking solely to Snapchat for your silliest selfies, or creating a secret friends-only Instagram to share all of your deepest feelings. But are those pro moves enough to protect your privacy and keep your rep in check?

Maybe, maybe not—all the factors at work when you’re constantly sharing, snapping, and searching can be super-confusing, even to the most tech-savvy teen. That’s why Choices talked to top experts to come up with a quick set of Qs that will help you evaluate how much you really understand your risks, rights, and responsibilities in the digital world. Some of the answers may be surprising, others not so much—but they’re all crucial reminders that you need to keep your online identity under your own control.

TRUE OR FALSE: Anyone can become a viral meme. 


The Answer: TRUE.

Take Ashley VanPevenage’s word for it. She asked a friend to cover up her acne for a party and didn't think twice when the aspiring makeup artist asked to post her before-and-after photos on Instagram. But nearly eight months later, Ashley woke up one day to find her face all over Instagram, Twitter, and iFunny—each image followed by a slew of mean remarks.

Ashley had become a meme: a photo with a caption that takes the image out of context, turning it into a joke that multiplies across the Internet. "I used to be entertained by memes, but when it's actually you, it's a whole different story," she says.

While Ashley’s case is extreme, it serves as an important reminder: Every single thing you post online can follow you in unexpected ways. So next time you’re set to publish a pic or Tweet, ask yourself: If someone took a screenshot of this now, would I be OK with it showing up 2 years—or 10 years—from now? It’s a simple but critical self-check.

TRUE OR FALSE: If I were hacked, I would know.

The Answer: False!

Get this: Research has shown that for every one adult who has his or her identity stolen, up to 35 young people do. Experts say crooks prey on kids and teens because their financial records are completely clean, meaning thieves can easily pile up thousands of dollars of debt in those names. The craziest part? You probably wouldn’t know until years later, when you first try to open a credit card.

There’s no reason to freak out—identity theft is a major hassle, but it’s not unfixable. Still, there are simple ways to keep your personal info safe. Whether you're shopping, taking a quiz, or filling out a job application, always make sure the URL is secure (indicated by an “https” as opposed to just “http”).

The most likely people to hurt me online:

A. Friends & family

B. Strangers

The Answer: A

Sure, strangers with bad intentions are out there, but it's far more common to be hurt by someone you know—whether that's a secret cyberbully hiding in your friend circle or a loved one who likes to overshare.

Let’s say, for example, that your mom has been documenting your life on Facebook for years. She thinks she’s being savvy about privacy, but one day you give your name a quick Google—and realize that her old photo of Lil' You picking your nose is image result No. 3. How is that possible?

With facial recognition technology getting better each day, every photo that's posted of you online gets combed for tiny details that are compared and matched to details in other photos. Search engines then link that similar image to your name without you even realizing it, and voilà! That gross pick-a-winner shot is added to your digital identity.

Now, will that image ruin your life? Probably not. Can it be embarrassing? Sure. That’s why it’s smart to set ground rules with friends and family about what you’re cool with them posting online and not. (Yup, you may need to teach your parents a thing or two about privacy settings and technology!)


The best way to block unsavory details from my online rep is:



A. Contact Google

B. Keep quiet & hope they go away

C. Assume secret identities

The Answer: C

You've all heard horror stories about teens rejected from jobs or colleges because of one dumb post. (Yes, it really happens!) To make sure you're not linking your identity to stuff meant only for friends, avoid using your full legal name on social media, says Bradley Shear, a lawyer specializing in social media law. This might seem counterintuitive, since you have to enter one to set up most accounts, but all you have to do is create an alias, like your nickname plus a shortened last name. (This counts even if your profile is private—friends with public profiles can expose your posts if they share them!)

And if there’s a post already online that you want gone, go straight to the person who posted it and ask them to delete it. This should remove it from Google eventually, but if it doesn’t, you can always try Ashley’s approach: beefing up your online presence with positivity. 

Her response video that addressed the nasty comments got more than 1.5 million views—and she even started her own anti-bullying campaign called #CuretheHate. Now the top search results for her name are no longer prime examples of cruelty; instead, they detail the way she’s fighting back against it. 

A Sincere Compliment
In an effort to counteract cyberbullying, high school junior Jeremiah started a Twitter account that posts compliments about the kids in his school.

You may think it’s funny to latch on to a mean meme, or join the crowd that’s calling someone out about a foolish comment. But you have a responsibility to consider other people’s privacy and rep too. Here’s why you may be tempted to follow the herd online—and how it can quickly get out of hand.


It all starts with one person spearheading the shame, says psychologist John Suler, author of Psychology of the Digital Age: “A post pushes a button that’s sensitive to them, and they make the person who posted it a scapegoat.”


When people gather anywhere in large numbers, whether that’s online or IRL, the individuals experience something called diffusion of responsibility. “You know you’re blending in,” says Suler, “so you feel less accountable for your own actions.”


Let’s say an ignorant tweet from a stranger has gone viral: If you can’t see that person’s facial expressions, have never heard their voice, and don’t know much about their life, it’s much harder to tap into your own sense of right and wrong.

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