11/10/2011 07:04 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Are You Cyber-Smart Or Cyber-Screwed?

I hate to say it, but you're probably already cyber-screwed.

If you aren't sure whether you've posted something online that could ruin your real-world reputation, then you probably have. If you aren't sure whether you're raising a young cyber-bully who's ruining his own reputation while terrorizing others online, then you probably are. If you're not sure whether you have any cyber-smarts, then you probably don't.

This may sound dramatic, but the truth is, in today's social-media world, words and pictures are permanent, and information moves fast. Whatever you or others have put online in the past will define you for years to come, maybe forever. You can't be reactive on the Internet -- by the time you realize something has gone wrong, it's too late -- you have to be proactive. Athletes, politicians and celebrities may get the media coverage, but every day someone, somewhere is suffering his or her own cyber-nightmare.

Even though it may feel like everything online is just virtual, the consequences are real and varied- lost jobs, denied college and graduate school admissions, destroyed relationships, scandal, personal tragedy. It shouldn't take another teen suicide for us to realize that our digital decisions matter -- that we must consider how we want to portray ourselves and how we want to treat others online.

So, where do you stand? As someone who's seen the rise and fall of countless online reputations (as founder of the controversial college gossip site, I want to help. Below are five questions you can ask yourself to determine whether you're cyber-smart:

  1. Can you name, specifically, the top three search results for your name on Google?
  2. Do you know for sure whether an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend has an embarrassing picture or message you sexted, tweeted or e-mailed them?
  3. Do you know the average number of people a "funny" post is shared with each time it's shared?
  4. Have you bought and registered the URL of your own name?
  5. Do you know the difference between anonymous and untraceable?

If you answered "no" to any of the questions above, it's time to educate yourself about online behavior. Even if you answered yes, would your kids be able to? Your spouse? Your parents? Your best friend? In the foreword to my new book, lol...OMG!: What Every Student Needs to Know About Online Reputation Management, Digital Citizenship and Cyberbullying, my friend and mentor, and GeoCities founder, David Bohnett, tells us bluntly, "we're on the verge of abusing our anonymity and freedom to the point that we undermine the very purpose of social networking and online individualism... we must become conscious creators of content and take active responsibility for building our positive online reputations."

Don't believe it? Think I'm over-reacting? Earlier this year, congressman Anthony Weiner put inappropriate photos online and was forced to resign. A junior at UCLA posted a rant called "Asians in the Library" on YouTube and was forced to drop out of school because of death threats. A freshman at Rutgers advertised a spycam video of his roommate on Twitter and two days later his roommate jumped off the George Washington Bridge; now he's facing criminal charges.

These aren't isolated incidents. Every day across the country people are losing their jobs as a result of poor online impressions. Based on a recent survey, 70 percent of recruiters have rejected candidates based on information they have found online. Among those same recruiters and HR professionals, 85 percent say that positive online reputation influences their hiring decisions.

Then there's cyberbullying, reputation management's ugly cousin. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, more than half of American teens are exposed to cyberbullying, while 33 percent of kids report being victimized. And it doesn't stop after high school: 22 percent of college students and 15 percent of adults are cyberbullied too. So, what can we do? Whether you're a passive accomplice, an active cheerleader or just an onlooker--you're a witness, so take action. Taking action means having the cyber-smarts to tell someone.

I'm passionate because it's personal. As the founder of a website once universally known for its scandalous user-generated content, I've seen firsthand how reckless online behavior can affect good people. At the time, I was naïve to the consequences. Today, this experience fuels my efforts to help cyber-citizens avoid sabotaging their careers, relationships and futures. My point is not to scare you, only to encourage you to take control of your digital destiny.
First, you have to educate yourself. Know the strategies and best practices outlined in lol...OMG! to ensure you're making the best possible decisions online. Be pro-active. Think about the content you create. Defend your reputation and treat others with decency and respect. In the end, don't be cyber-senseless and you won't get cyber-screwed!