I thought I had more time to shape the imprint of me that my son would eventually find on the Internet

There is nothing more unsettling than a mother’s relationship with time. The first few months of your baby’s life feel like an eternity. And yet somehow between that beginning and now, I blinked, and my baby is about to turn 12. He is roughly the same height as me. And he has a phone.

The moment when he Googled me arrived sooner than I expected. I thought I had time to shape the imprint of me on the Internet; to delete those blog posts with more expletives than I wanted him to see; to explain the less-than-generous opinion others hold of me, which he’d most certainly come across.

I both am and am not the Internet versions of myself. Yet I must own them all, and now, so must my son

Having been a blogger and freelance writer on and off now for the better part of seven years, it is safe to say that I didn’t practice many of the things I regularly preach to him now in my own Internet past. When I started writing online, my laptop was my therapist, and into it I typed my deepest, darkest reflections. Then I shared them with as many people as wanted to read them. I shared cute personal anecdotes about him or our family. Editors asked for pictures and I eagerly supplied them, never thinking about the way things are shared and manipulated online; how nothing is real or tangible, yet everything seems to last forever. We are together online, yet alone. We are real, but also heavily curated versions of ourselves.

Last week, during some spare time in his middle school library, he Googled me. And there it was. The full fire hose of my Internet experience. The parts of his story he didn’t know were public. The viral blog post I’d written six years ago that became its own news story. The strange descriptions of what I wrote, said and did in that post, told by other people who needed filler in their news cycle that week in 2013. The comments of people grateful I’d spoken up, and of those who said I deserved to have my children taken away from me. All of it accompanied by pictures of him and his family – pictures from sites that had asked to use these photos but were then lifted and repurposed without permission, because once it’s out there, it’s out there. And because the rules of the Internet road are few or none.

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Because the Internet seems so easy to navigate, sometimes you forget the real lessons, the underlying hardness and complexity baked into our entire online experience

My son knows well the story I wrote about in that post, the day I let a device distract me while my daughter was in the tub. He knows that I wrote about this. He knows the television cameras came to our house to discuss it. He remembers being on TV. What he doesn’t know is the deep shame and regret I still carry about this moment in my daughter’s young life. I suspect he doesn’t know that at the same time, I’ll never regret starting a national conversation about digital distraction. And he doesn’t realise the way in which this story was and still is twisted and reframed in the wilds of the Internet.

He came across a story with a title something like, ‘This mother nearly killed her daughter’, which is technically not wrong, but not the title of my original piece. It was clearly designed to be more clickbait-ish, and included an old picture of our family taken from somewhere else.

He froze, he panicked. He didn’t read the article. He couldn’t. What was happening? What was real about his mother, what was true?

In a world where everything is equally glossy and accessible, we tend to whitewash things like perspective

Thankfully, it was the end of the school day and there was a concerned teacher and counsellor nearby who called and quickly helped clear up the misunderstanding. But it reminded me that because the Internet seems so easy to navigate, sometimes you forget the real lessons, the underlying hardness and complexity baked into our entire online experience.

As a digital newcomer, what he is experiencing is not unlike the disorientation of new pilots learning to fly at night. What is up, what is down? What is real?

Here is what I should have told Dylan before we arrived at this day:

Everything you do on the Internet lasts forever

Every social media account, every tweet, every blog post is part of your story, and whether we want to be forever framed by those things or not, prospective partners, employers and schools will search them and form an opinion of you. Whether we like it, whether it’s accurate, is irrelevant.

I can’t decide what my total Internet thumbprint looks like to someone else. I put it all out there; all I can do is own it. Acknowledge my growth as a person. Reflect on the fact that while the digital versions of myself is two-dimensional and static, the real me is not. We don’t have to stay the same person as we put out there, and we don’t have to become the version of the person other people think we are, based on what they see or read.

Parse very carefully what you read online

Are you reading from an original source, or are you reading someone else’s reflections on something that happened? Are you reading news from a newspaper with editors and reporters with degrees and training?

Determining whether you are reading a first-person narrative, an opinion piece, or informational text is shockingly hard to discern on the Internet. But take the time to get this right.

In a world where everything is equally glossy and accessible, we tend to whitewash things like perspective.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t read the comments…

Ever. About anything. Yes, there are some good comments out there, but mostly if you put yourself out on the Internet, it should be because you feel proud or scared and excited about whatever it is you are sharing.

Recognise the ‘I’ in your Internet experience. Don’t get lost in what other people think – doing so is deflating and useless. Both in life and on the Internet, be intentional about what you put out there, and once you do, move ahead.

As we move forward, we are armed with the uncomfortable truth that neither of us can change my Internet past; I’m not sure I would if I could. I am, or at least was, everything that I put out there at that point in time. I am responsible for those words, but not anyone else’s opinion of them.

I can only reflect, and guide him to be as deliberate and thoughtful as possible as he clicks ahead, carefully carving out his own digital future.

Article by Jennifer Meer, first published on ‘Washington Post’.

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