Today I saw a couple of TikToks on my 21-year-old’s account that I would call “questionable.” They were sexually suggestive but seemingly in good fun. My main concern is that as a rising senior this could negatively impact his job search if a potential employer were to find it. I have had the social media “talk” before and my son’s Instagram is relatively tame. Wondering if I should say something about the TikTok posts or just keep it to myself?
Your question is a can of worms like none other. It’s right up there with What Is Life and Is Boba Good? Ask a thousand people and you will get a thousand answers, all of which you would be well advised to take with a grain of salt. But you asked me, so grab a salt shaker and let’s dive in!
The four big worms emerging from this can are: Is there supposed to be a difference between our personal and professional identities? If you blur your professional and personal, where does sexuality fit in? How do we reckon with the eternal memory of digital technology? And finally, how do you talk with your son about the first three worms?
Let’s take these one at a time.
Somewhere around the time I turned 40, I decided I wanted to be just one person in every context — professional, parental, interpersonal, etc. I feel truly alive when I’m being genuine, so that means being exactly who I am wherever I am. This insight was only possible when I had lived a good 40 years and discovered that I didn’t have to tell everyone everything I was thinking or feeling about everything all the time. Being genuine, for me, also means having the right balance of privacy and indifference to what people think of me.
Identity (or identities) are choices everyone gets to make about themselves. So in the context of your son’s TikTok posts, the question is, “Who do you want to know you, and what do you want them to know?”
Get some salt. The answer to this question is that it is entirely up to each person how they want their sexuality to fit into their own lives. This doesn’t mean you get to decide how you want your sexuality to fit into your colleague’s life. It also doesn’t mean you get to decide how it fits into your lover’s life. So in the context of your son’s TikTok posts, the question for him is, “How do you want your sexuality to fit into how people know or feel about you?”
Here are two facts: humans change throughout their lives and the internet remembers everything.
Every one of us gets to decide how we feel about sexuality. And then we get to change our mind. But the internet dutifully captures whatever representation of our decision we post, and it is completely indifferent to the fact that we change our minds.
Wouldn’t it be cool if people (employers, relatives, friends) could make room for the fact that younger versions of ourselves are not our current selves? In the context of your son’s TikTok posts, the question is, “How do you want to own this part of your digital footprint if it changes?”
You enter into the conversation without assumptions, judgments, or decisions on how your son should feel about sex, TikTok, or his relationship with future employers. You ask questions like, “What kind of reactions do you get on those TikToks?” and “Who do you get reactions from?” and “How do the reactions make you feel?”
Finally, be open to the possibility that future employers are not the same people who hired you or me. Your son is inheriting a world that doesn’t think in the same way as the world of your generation or mine. And generations before ours thought corsets and mercury thermometers were a good idea.
One final word about sex. The fact of sexuality is benign. But how we depict it, talk about it, promote it, or discourage it isn't always benign. We all need to pay attention to how we show up — with one another in person and in the eternally indelible environment of social media.