iStock_000015335905_DoubleRecently, Monica Lewinsky gave a TED talk titled “The Price of Shame” that has become a viral sensation with millions of views.  In the talk, Lewinsky boldly shares her experiences around the exposure of her affair with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and the fallout of that scandal, which was fueled by the rapid spread of information (and misinformation) on the Internet.  She also points out that when the affair began, she was just 22 years old–an age that experts say is still part of adolescence.  Yet the public shaming for her mistake (which she says she “regrets deeply”) has been carried throughout all parts of her adult life.  Teens and young adults will make mistakes–how can we help them learn from them, rather than be defined by them?

I remember being in high school when the Clinton scandal was happening, and I was absolutely influenced by the media’s portrayal of Monica Lewinsky as “that woman.”  For years, I had judged who she was as a person based on the way that she had become famous for her big mistake.  But when I watched her TED talk, I realized how wrong I had been for seeing her in just one dimension.

This is the danger in public humiliation, especially in the age of the Internet–the single focus and long life each story will have. Some people might say, “Well, if you do something wrong, don’t you deserve to be shamed?”  It’s not that people shouldn’t learn or have consequences to their actions, but nobody should be defined by a single mistake they have made.  If that mistake is broadcast over social media and the web, it becomes impossible to ignore, indefinitely.  What happens in 15 years when that person is looking for a job or a romantic partner?  A simple Google search could change everything for the person who just wants to move on from something stupid they did a long time ago.

Here are a few tips to help guide your teen through their awkward mistakes, hopefully under the radar of the world wide web:

Monitor behavior without being intrusive.  In addition to knowing about your teen’s friends and activities, keep an eye on their online habits.  Think of–and teach your teen about–every digital footprint as something that could be held up to a microscope later in life.

– When your teen does make a mistake, talk about it with them as soon as you can.  Let them know that you support them and help them show others that one choice does not define them.  This may mean asking other teens and/or parents to respect your family’s privacy while still owning and learning from the mistake.

– If someone posts about your teen’s behavior on social media, ask that person to remove the post–it’s best to ask in person if possible and have a conversation about why the online content might be hurtful in the long term.

– If you see shaming happening in the news, use it as a teachable moment with your teen.  In your discussion, look at the story from both sides.  Why were the actions of the story’s subject wrong and what can we learn from them?  But also, how is the news story itself affecting the subject?  Check out our related post on discussions of traumatic media events for further tips.

– Model good behavior–don’t participate in shaming by making judgmental comments through social media or in the comments section of a Web article.  If anything, stand up for the person being shamed and point out that everyone is a real person who shouldn’t be defined by any one thing.  Even if this is an unpopular opinion, it could change the tide of a conversation.  Talk to your teen about your thought process so that they learn from your actions.

Remember, young people have always made mistakes, and will continue to make them.  What other thoughts or tips do you have to help teens learn from their mistakes in a safe and healthy way?