(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

I’m in Ashley Madison’s database. As a journalist who’s written about marriage and social media for sites like YourTango, I signed up after reading a Redbook Magazine article about it to see if I could write a story myself. And frankly, I was intrigued. Really? Eight million folks had signed up to have affairs with neighbors? What brought about that level of marital unhappiness—and secrecy?

As expected, my inbox instantly flooded with vulgar responses. And then I chickened out. I never messaged anybody and simply logged off. Yet when I read of the leak, I broke into a sweat, not because I’d been on the site, but because of the tidal wave of judgment that was about to hit.

Over my morning cup of coffee, I shared with my conscientious husband that years ago I’d logged in and could be named. He laughed. With that sound, my fear lessened. Because it was sort of funny. He knows who I am but others don’t.

As a writer, I’ve created quite the digital trail for myself. Over the years I’ve expressed ideas I wish I hadn’t while attempting to push artistic boundaries and thoughts I’ve since grown out of. An idea that may have seemed fresh 20 years ago no longer dies with an obscure journal that goes out of print: it’s still there, ever present. Only now it’s not an idea that’s developed over pages, but one that can be revived in a soundbite that can lead you right in front of the social media firing squad.

Hackers say they have posted the personal details of millions of people registered with the adultery website Ashley Madison. But this massive data breach could have widespread implications on how we all use the Internet. The Post's Caitlin Dewey explains. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

But what’s worse for me, a mother, is that in light of the Ashley Madison leak what I regret most isn’t what I’ve written about me, but what I’ve written about my kids. Simple things like e-mails to teachers, school records, texts I sent to friends, or even notes taken by doctors. Because this most recent data leak isn’t about exposing cheaters in my mind, it’s about the digital trail we’ve all created that could be exposed at any moment, one that can be hugely misinterpreted.

[Welcome to the terrifying post-Ashley Madison Internet]

When our kids were less than 5 years old, our fears defined who they were. But now, at ages 10, 8 and 6, we get to see what remarkable beings they’re becoming. Our eldest writes skits, our middle can get a cavity filled without Novocaine and our youngest has a better eye than Queer Eye for The Straight Guy.

In hindsight, I was wrong about a lot of things. As they developed, their narrow interests morphed into passions; their tantrums turned into determination; their overwhelming attention to detail signaled a visual intelligence. And I don’t want my kids locked in time by a digital trail I created which was half wrong. They have a right to evolve, and they have a right to their privacy. As a mother, it pains me to think I may have compromised both.

As they hit the tween years, they will discover social media is their marketing tool. I hope they understand the online persona they create is not who they are. You can’t come to know yourself through likes. Some of their marketing campaigns will not work. Some will miserably, embarrassingly fail. They may be caught on video doing something stupendously stupid. What price will they pay for taking risks we once dismissed as youthful indiscretions?

On social media we’re free to judge others by their worst moment, and nobody deserves that. Are 10,000 voices against one ever fair? Is one poorly thought-out tweet worth ruining a life or career over? As Americans, we believe in a fair trial.  But, obviously, the Internet does not provide for that.

Imagine what the Ashley Madison leak may do to some people. I’m lucky to have escaped fallout, thanks to a trusting and loving husband. What of others in my situation? And what about our kids when they make a mistake online? Or not even a mistake, but do something misguided? Because all kids do. But now, there’s proof forever.

We teach our children to stand up to bullies. We don’t tolerate them in the classroom, and yet we become them online. We need to help our kids learn to use words both offline and on to help the situation, not hurt it. And most important, to always be kind, because words are way more powerful — and permanent — than we may know.

Jennifer Jeanne Patterson is the author of 52 Fights: A Newlywed’s Confession. Follow her on Twitter @unplannedcookin and on Facebook.

Join On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice. You can sign up here for our e-newsletter and can find us at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.

You might also be interested in:

Sexting is the new first base, but don’t panic yet

The secrets I still want my teen to learn