The Interview SeriesJul 31, 2020

Putting Your Best Digital Foot Forward: Advice from a Tech Expert

Stephanie Humphrey was an engineer for 13 years before she shifted gears and became a sought-after media personality. Today, she is the Resident Tech Expert for Strahan, Sara & Keke, A Good Morning America show where she helps viewers understand technology. When she’s not busy with her media appearances, she’s educating young people about digital citizenship with her brand ‘Til Death Do You Tweet. She regularly meets with students, parents and professionals to educate them on social media, digital footprints and cyberbullying.

We sat down with Stephanie to learn more about how parents can help their children understand the implications of the internet.

Tell us a bit about your initiative ‘Til Death Do You Tweet.

I started it while I was an engineer in order to avoid boring kids to death on career day. Honestly, that was my motivation because I had a lot of friends that were educators and they’d want me to talk about what I do. I worked for a government defense contractor and I had top-secret clearances. So, there wasn’t a lot I could even say about what I did and I wasn’t going to go into a classroom on career day and say, “Well, I do performance analysis and requirements verification.”

Because I couldn’t talk about the project I was working on or anything cool, I just thought about what a student might care about. And social media was really exploding and younger kids were getting online. We were starting to see the conversation around cyberbullying, and cyber suicides were happening. I looked at what I was doing and said, “You know what? This is actually necessary. It’s not just a fun, frivolous thing that’ll keep kids engaged for 30 minutes when I come to a school. This is actually information that they need because kids are dying.”

Kids were killing themselves over the things that were being posted on social media. That was my motivation. So I took it back to the drawing board, started really refining the talk and adding in those things that kids needed to hear. I added all the bells and whistles, packaging and marketing, and started going out to schools and soliciting feedback. I didn’t see anyone else doing it, and the feedback that I was getting was that this was necessary—that our kids need this.

 

 

How do kids respond to your program?

I’ve been in rooms of hundreds of kids. I stay afterwards all the time. I’ve had kids in front of me in tears. I’ve had kids run the whole gamut of emotion around digital wellness and how they interact with social media.

It wasn’t something that I thought would become a movement for me, but over the years, it really has become a passion. I call it my ministry because I see the good it can do and I understand that it’s information that needs to get out there. So I’ve expanded it now. I go into schools, I talk to students and I talk to parents as well. I tell them what they need to know. I also have a version for professionals now because we’re living in a cancel culture and folks are doing all these crazy things online that they’re not really considering for their personal brand, and adults need help too.

What does cancel culture mean and what are the implications for our society?

Right now, we need to think about the fact that you may not get a second chance.

It’s that split second that makes the difference between your livelihood being taken away from you, you being arrested. And when it comes to kids, it’s literally life or death. So when we think about cancel culture, we really need to think about why mindfulness is so important—because you don’t get that second chance.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen since you started this work?

The lengths that people are okay going to when they think that no one knows their identity. There’s a psychologist that coined the term “Online Disinhibition Effect.” That’s the guard that you’re willing to let down, and the idea that you would do things online that you wouldn’t do in person and would never do in your real life. And it seems like that’s just progressively gotten worse over time. The idea that someone would dox somebody and put all their personal information out there, and the threats and the meanness has really, really shocked and disappointed me. It makes me all the more passionate and committed to what I’m doing.

What are kids most concerned about today?

It’s the bullying. They don’t know where to go and how to manage it. Especially when you have a student that creates a dummy account that you can’t trace. I report that one, but they just put up another one. So they struggle to understand how to deal with harassment and bullying. But there is also a ton of frustration from kids and I try my best to stress to parents how important it is to take it seriously when they come to you. A lot of parents still have the mindset of, “Oh my god, put the phone down,” and it’s just not that simple for them.

I hear a lot of frustration from young people that they’re not being taken seriously. I have that conversation with them and ask if they talked to a teacher. I ask if they talked to an adult. And they’ll say, “Yes, I did all of those things and nobody’s done anything.” So that frustration is real. It breaks my heart.

What advice would you give to parents to help their kids become good digital citizens?

It’s funny, ‘Til Death Do You Tweet was a different kind of talk before I keyed in on the idea of a personal brand. But then I figured out that it was something kids actually care a lot about. It changed the conversation entirely because now it gives them some ownership. Now I’m not some old person coming in telling them, “Don’t do this.” The first thing I tell them is that I’m not here to tell you not to be on social media. However, this is something that you own, that you’re responsible to maintain.

You just lay it out for them. You give them those options and you show them the choices and the consequences and then you leave it. And parents can do that as well. You can have a conversation with your kid. Sit down at the computer together and let them Google their name and just watch what kind of information comes up so they can see it. If you could find it, so can someone else. And if they clicked on one of those links, what would they see and what would that say about you?

What are some common misconceptions that parents have about kids and technology?

I don’t think they really understand that the things their kids are doing now are setting them up for a digital footprint that’s going to follow them around for the rest of their life. Ten years from now, a nude that ended up on a website in a revenge porn situation is going to affect their job prospects. It is. It just is.

It’s important to understand the permanence of the internet and the fact that the internet is searchable and recoverable. I don’t think people really take the time to ruminate on the actual nature of the internet itself and its behaviours. The internet has its own specific behaviours that people need to understand when they’re posting, because that’s going to affect how the world sees them.

And when you talk about a digital footprint, you’re not just talking about social media. You’re talking about that group chat or those text messages or those emails or those searches.

How can parents of younger children introduce technology in a constructive way?

Parents know their kids better than anybody. They know if that kid is responsible enough to even own a device. If you hand them a $1,000 phone, are they going to lose it the next day? And if they couldn’t find their shoes today, then they probably aren’t ready to be responsible for a whole iPhone. So there’s that part of it.

But also when you’re thinking about that, you have to understand that the conversation needs to start before that point—and it needs to continue. It needs to change and evolve as they get older.

You recently wrote a book called “Don’t Let Your Digital Footprint Kick You in the Butt!” What inspired it and who could benefit from reading it?

The book was inspired by the teachers and administrators I meet when I’m speaking to students. I was getting requests for resources that they could use to keep the conversation going and I realized there was an opportunity there. I also wanted this important information to get into the hands of students that may never get to see me speak in person. I wrote the book with the hope that every middle and high school student in the country would have a copy. But, the feedback I’ve been getting from adults about the book’s benefits for their own use has been a lovely surprise too!

If you want to get the book or learn more, visit ‘Til Death Do You Tweet or follow along on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube!