Who are you? Your best friends may think of you as fun, serious, playful, or a chatty social butterfly. Maybe your teachers think of you as a creative student, a talented artist, athletic, or someone who works hard or makes people laugh.
What we're talking about is your identity — who you are and the way you and others think about you.
You're always you, of course, but you probably have different identities depending on the situation or who you're with. For instance, at school you might keep a quiet profile and stay out of trouble. But at home, you might be known for your practical jokes and silly side.
If you use a smartphone, tablet, or computer to play games and chat with friends, you also have an online identity. That means you have an identity that's related to how you look, what you do, and what you say when you're using the computer. If you play on Club Penguin and put seven disco balls in your igloo, that says something.
Games and websites like Club Penguin, Disney Junior, and Minecraft might let you create an avatar — a character that represents you. It's fun to dress up that character and maybe give it a sense of style you'd never try at school. Would you like silver hair or a wacky pair of shoes? You just click on the costume and it's yours.
Websites with games, chat, and messaging options also let you choose your own screen name. If you want to be known as King_of_Ketchup, that's your new name. Maybe your little brother will want to be the the Mayor_of_Mustard.
So if you start calling yourself the King of Ketchup, does that mean you really like ketchup? Should you tell your new online friends how much you love ketchup and all the foods you like to top with ketchup? That's up to you, but it brings up a good point: How much should you share about your real self online?
You may feel fine telling your best friends about your biggest crush, but what if the whole school could see your poem about your crush's beautiful eyes? What if strangers could see it? Or even worse, what if, as a joke, someone pretended to be your crush or your friends told you to fake somebody out and pretend to like them?
There are rules about being online, just like like there are rules about what you do and say in other places. It's important you learn the rules so you can play safely online.
Maybe you're allowed to use your phone to send texts or log in to YouTube to watch a video. These are two popular ways to communicate online. As you get older, you might get interested in Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites. These websites have a minimum age (13 years), but many kids look at these sites before the age of 13. They're known as social networking sites because they let you network (talk to) your friends.
Social network sites let you create online identities through personal webpages. With that page, you can chat, share photos, play online games with friends, and tell people as much or as little about yourself as you want. Some people even report what they had for lunch or post pictures of themselves or their favorite pet.
If you're thinking about creating an account on one of these sites, talk with your mom or dad first. If you're a Minecraft fan or like to play Clash of Clans, you'll know you can visit other people's "lands" and chat online. Many kids who play on a Wii or Xbox or on their computers, tablets, phones, or other devices have figured out how to chat with people they know and people they don't know on game websites.
On Halloween it can be fun to pretend to be someone else. Maybe you're a mild-mannered kid but on Halloween you like to put on a witch's hat or the grossest monster mask you can find. That's OK because it's just one day and everyone knows it's for fun.
When you're using the computer, it can be tempting to use a screen name as a kind of mask. It might seem fun to play a joke on someone — by teasing the person or pretending to be someone else. Or maybe you're angry with someone and it's easier to say something mean if the person doesn't know it's you.
Just like in the real world, it's mean and hurtful to do stuff like that online. Even if you're only kidding, they might not know that you're only joking and they might be very hurt or angry by what you said. It's a lonely feeling when you don't know who's messing with you. Is it someone just being funny or does the person really mean it?
Whether they're strangers or friends, the rule is: Be Kind Online. Schools, teachers, and parents are all getting stricter about what is OK or not OK to send as a message on your phone or computer.
Here's a good test: If you wouldn't say it to someone's face, don't say it to the person on the computer. And just like with regular bullying, tell a grownup if you or someone you know is being upset in this way.
If you're a kid who likes to have fun and chat with friends online, here's how you can stay safe and avoid problems:
Most parents tell their kids they're only allowed to be online friends with people they already know (that is, actual friends). To stay safe, parents often track when their kids are online and what they are saying — at least for a while.
Be patient. The more you show you can handle playing games, watching fun videos, and chatting with friends, the more you will be allowed to have screen rights. Online, just like in the real world, it's always better to be safe than sorry!
Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2014
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