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Cecily Joseph Headshot

The Digital Generation Gap and the Management of Information

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A lot of effort has gone into understanding the younger generation. Sometimes we call them "Millennials" or "Generation Y" or even "Digital Natives," but clearly those born after 1980 are having a very different adolescent experience than those of us born before. It's obvious when we look at how youth engage with technology, the Internet, mobile devices, and each other, especially when it comes to social media. This is the new generation gap - the divide in how millennials develop relationships compared to the older generation.

Years ago the world of teen interaction was relatively small compared to today. It consisted of seeing friends at school and during weekend plans. But now, with social media and social networking, a young person's social world just got bigger. Young people today are increasingly using online services, in addition to Facebook, to communicate and share with others. They are segregating their communications, choosing different audiences to receive different messages and curating their online reputation. Their parents and the general public may see a pleasant, "Having a GREAT day at school" post on Facebook, while close friends or teens they don't know may see, "My history teacher is the WORST!" on Instagram and other social media networking sites. Teens find it much more interesting when they get likes and shares and comments and interactions from people who they don't know - it's instant online popularity, but at what price? (For a view of some of the apps youth are turning to, in addition to Facebook, consider Common Sense Media's article, 11 Sites and Apps Kids Are Heading to After Facebook.)

For an older generation, trust and reliability and experience fuel our public reputation. We know that serious activities like buying a house or being hired for a job might be influenced by your credit score. Your credit score reflects an adult lifetime of choices about money. Your reputation can also refer to your contributions in a professional sphere where activities as varied as your job history, peer network, publications, conference, panel participation and even your Rolodex help to tell your story. A millennial rightly says, what's a Rolodex? Young people pile up the friend lists, measure each other's social standing by the number of comments on posts and tags in photos. Reputation is driven by interaction, relationships and trust. People you haven't ever met contribute to your online reputation when they respond to your online fundraiser, review your eBay listing and comment on your Instagram photo. For young people, these are real interactions that are just as meaningful as offline interactions.

What is the implication to the corporate world when young people build relationships in new ways and are influenced by people they've never met? Why are youth so inclined to trust people they don't know versus well-known professionals or trusted brands? According to Chris Malone, author of the new book, "The Human Brand," "younger consumers have less life experience and are generally more trusting than older ones whose greater experience makes them cynical and distrustful. However, as younger consumers get exposed to more information about the true intentions of companies and brands, they become cynical and distrustful much sooner than previous generations."

Millennials have taken note and are often better at this digital reputation management than their parents or those who run companies. In a 2011 Yahoo study, teens were found to be the most likely age group to use privacy settings. And when looking for a job, the young approach things differently as well. They might add a website address to their resume, polish their Klout score and post online comments with their real names to improve their search results. They turn to their online networks for leads on available jobs, even using Facebook's Graph Search tool to figure out who they might know at a particular company. And they contribute LinkedIn endorsements for their friends and co-workers. So if you want to hire them or influence them - they are changing the game and we better catch up with them.

For parents, the takeaway has to be for all of us to start thinking more like our kids. Ask them for advice about technology and stay up to date on the latest apps. Talk to your kids about the potential pitfalls of relying too heavily on online reputation and look at services like Reputation.com and ReviewInc.com, which help companies recover when competitors and disgruntled customers bash them in Internet reviews. It's also important to have conversations about online and social scams, malware and dangerous links. For mobile devices the risk from a quick click or download has never been greater. You'll also find great advice on mobile security at StaySafeOnline.org.