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When I started Gift Card Girlfriend, I declared myself the “Rachael Ray of gift cards,” and then set out to create a personal brand to back that statement. Because social media hadn’t quite exploded in household popularity, I launched my brand through a website and a blog. Then, I systematically added social layers — Facebook then Twitter, Pinterest then Google+, and so on.

Being new to the online showcase, if you will, I slowly and cautiously set up each account and labored over what to say on each platform. Despite the temptation to participate in trendy public fodder in order to gain social traction, I decided Gift Card Girlfriend would mostly post about gift cards (makes sense) and would only post comments or pictures that I would feel comfortable showing to my children (or the people at my church). The persona is, after all, a reflection of me.

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As I methodically and carefully crafted this personal brand, however, I saw people, particularly teenagers, all around me building their own brands without even knowing it. With every social media account created and with every comment, photo, or video shared, they too began developing virtual reflections of themselves that are nearly as public as my persona. While most adults, I believe, quickly figure out the potential consequences of over-sharing, it’s millennials who concern me. Many are creating personas well ahead of knowing who they will become as people.

While social media can be an asset in your job search, a 2013 CareerBuilder study revealed that 43 percent (up 9 percentage points since last year) of hiring managers who currently research candidates via social media said they found information that caused them not to hire a candidate. What did this compromising content entail, exactly? Half of it was provocative or inappropriate photos or information, 48 percent involved drinking or drug use, 33 percent was bad-mouthing a previous employer and 28 percent made discriminatory comments related to race, gender or religion.

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Who Are You?

My teenage daughter tweets, posts, and pins the daily details of her life. What she says, however, is only part of her profile. The people she chooses to follow, the posts she retweets, and the pages she “likes” fill out the rest of the story. But despite our many conversations on cyber safety and the need to be aware that people will judge her based on her social profile, she is too young to comprehend her future self, too flippant to acknowledge mom might be right, and too naïve to consider that she may one day regret being so open.

Looking back, I am grateful to have the benefit of social media at an age when I have the wisdom needed to put a filter on the person I share with the public. Unlike her, the things I said and did as a teenager are all hearsay. There are a few scrapbook pages and journal entries I’d rather forget, but I certainly don’t have years’ worth of public postings to bury in order to represent the person I want to be.

[More from Manilla.com: 4 Tips to Stay Focused in a Social Media World]

Who Will You Become?

My daughter may not want to listen to me, but perhaps yours will when I say that the creation of a personal brand starts the minute you make that first public post. Though you may now be using social media for fun, without regard to public perception, you may one day want to change how the world sees you–but it will be too late to start over. The girl who tweeted about slacking off in school could impede her college entrance chances. The boy who posted about partying with the guys could lose his job, or worse.

What Is the Solution?

As technology provides increasing ways to give people of all ages a voice, I suggest playing it safe in order to protect the person you are now and to preserve the opportunity to develop into who you want to be. If you’re not sure what is appropriate, then follow Gift Card Girlfriend’s other rule of posting — don’t share anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable showing to your mom.

Shelley Hunter, a.k.a. Gift Card Girlfriend, is your consumer guide to gift cards. As the founder of GiftCardGirlfriend.com, Shelley created a strong following and become an authority on all things gift cards. She is currently the Content Manager and company spokesperson for GiftCards.com.

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