Teen Online Activity Can Harm Future College Admissions and Employment
Teens and Privacy, 2011
By Nicole Verardi
You've been working hard trying to get into college—researching schools, refining your essay, collecting glowing recommendations, studying on nights and weekends for the SATs or ACTs, maybe even preparing for a campus interview. Throughout all of this process, you've made a great impression as a serious, promising college student. Wait, though. Before you can relax on the couch to watch Dancing with the Stars, and Glee on DVR, there's one more detail to take care of—your Facebook profile.
Social Networking Profiles
Whether it's through Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr or another social media service, students are online—online sharing details with friends, online for everyone to see.
These sites help you keep in touch with friends and allow you to meet new people. Many students spend hours each day updating their profiles, messaging their friends and clicking through photo albums. It's harmless fun, right?
Now, how would you feel if your teachers saw your profile? A college admission officer?
"Well, I would be a little angry because there are things in my profile that I don't want them to see," said Aubrey Fait, a freshman at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (IN). "There is some information that I want to keep private between me and my friends, so I would prefer if my parents and college faculty not look at my Facebook profile."
Other students don't think what they do in their free time influences their schoolwork, so it shouldn't matter what information they have online. They may be right: You can be a great student, regardless what you do outside of school. When the embarrassing details of your social life are online for anyone to look up, though, you might want to reconsider what you post.
Students in middle school, high school and college are being suspended and expelled for their online indiscretions.
You might not like it, but you should know that adults—from your schools, families and even law enforcement—are looking at your pages.
The Consequences of Social Networking
Most colleges are not surfing the Web for your profile. However, when other people bring students' blogging to their attention, schools do respond.
• At least one college applicant was denied admission in part because of his blog on LiveJournal. The admission dean said the student's blog, which was brought to his attention, included seemingly hostile comments about certain college officials.
• Swimmers at Louisiana State [University] criticized coaches on Facebook and were kicked off the team.
• A high school freshman in Maryland was reportedly suspended because of online photos.
• Police busted an underage drinking party at George Washington University after they found invitations online.
Many middle and high schools have banned the use of these social networking websites on campus. Some private schools have even banned students from joining these sites altogether.
"I've been on MySpace and I can see that for kids it's like their hangout place, their place to vent, their place to maintain instant contact—it's hard for them to give it up," said Judy Oberlander, a counselor at Ojai Valley School (CA). However, "since MySpace was taking a toll on study time and classroom engagement, in addition to the danger of the imprudent things being posted by students, we decided to outlaw MySpace use at school or any time."
It's happening all across the country: Students in middle school, high school and college are being suspended and expelled for their online indiscretions. Even if you disagree with these policies, they can affect you. And as much of a cliché as it is, your school officials are just trying to protect you.
The College Admission Effects
With the social networking bans in schools, students need to be careful of what they post. Some zero-tolerance polices make it fair game to punish someone who is in a photo even holding what appears to be an alcoholic drink. Explaining this type of suspension to a college doesn't really make a good bullet point for your resume.
Even if your school doesn't have these rules, your postings could affect your college admission. Most colleges do not look up students on these sites, but when other people draw attention to these possibly offensive blogs, then schools often take action.
"We have just started letting students know that employers, college admission personnel, and others may be checking their postings.... Our students seemed very surprised by this," said Julie Davis, Thomas Worthington High School (OH).
"In terms of college admission, I talk with the students about the importance of projecting a professional impression through voice mail messages, e-mail account titles and social media postings. I tell them a story once told to me by an admission counselor who said a student gave her e-mail address as partygirl＠hotmail.com. She didn't get accepted to that college," said Margi Wieber, college counselor, Providence Academy (MN).
The Positive Side of Online Sites
Some college admission officers make themselves available for students on these sites as a convenient forum for Q & A.
"I have accounts on Friendster, Facebook, LiveJournal, Xanga, and MySpace. I do interact with a variety of students via these communities, however, it's our strict policy that the Internet should only help applicants, not hurt them.... I, personally, don't think it's fair for college officials to take advantage of [these online interactions]—the one exception being a student's safety," noted Ben Jones, communications manager for the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Office of Admissions.
"I don't 'research' applicants online using their pages in these communities—although other schools do, from what I read in the news. My interactions with applicants and current MIT students are initiated by them—not by me."
Jeannine Lalonde, assistant dean of admission at the University of Virginia [UVA], also talks to students online who contact her. "After seeing current UVA students answer questions on MySpace, I decided to step in and offer some advice to the high school students who were posting. I knew it would open the door, but I also knew that seeing an admission officer on MySpace might:
1. Make a few kids stop and think before posting info about questionable behavior on their sites; and
2. Make some students realize that admission officers aren't as scary as they might have thought."
Sometimes students include Web-based communications such as blogs in their college application. Daniel Creasy, from Johns Hopkins University (MD), explains his experiences with student blogs as part of the application: "Many times, the work the students have done adds substance to their file and truly helps, but there have been occasions where this information raises questions and concerns."
Creasy also cautions that when students contact admission officers through the school's message boards and blogs, the information becomes part of the formal correspondence and can be factored into the admission decision.
Beyond School Impact
Applying to college isn't the only thing you should worry about when you post your information online. Your profile can follow you as you try to get a job.
According to the 2005 study by executive job-search agency ExecuNet cited in the Chicago Tribune, 75 percent of recruiters use Web research as part of the applicant screening process.
The same article notes that a recruiter withdrew a job offer after seeing the candidate's blog.
Whatever you post, it never goes away.
One recent grad took down his profile when someone called him about a friend he went to school with. The caller identified himself as an employee at a consulting firm who was "Facebooking" all the applicants and contacting their friends to check them out.
An intern was fired when the CEO [chief executive officer] discovered that the intern's Facebook profile noted that he would "'spend most of [his] days screwing around on IM [instant messaging] and talking to [his] friends and getting paid for it."
There's even a verb for people who get fired for what they put on their websites—dooced—named after the blog of a woman who was fired for writing about her job in her blog.
Basically, the point is that whatever you post, it never goes away. Once your information is online—even if you take it down—it becomes public information, as your page can be saved on anyone's computer.
Steps to Protect Privacy
• First, be safe! Never post personal information such as your address, daily schedule, phone number, etc. Check out these safety guidelines from the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use and WiredSafety.
• Make your profile private so that strangers can't look at your information, and be cautious about adding new friends who you do not personally know.
• Take down any questionable photos or exchanges between you and your friends. Give it the "Grandma Test." If you wouldn't want your grandmother to see it, then you don't want other adults to either. Remember, pictures and references of you on your friends' pages can be damaging too. You can ask them to take down this kind of information.
• Don't get a false sense of security on social media sites. It's easy for faculty, alumni and random people to get on and look at the information you have posted.
Although social networking can be fun, remember that sometimes what you post will be in public view, like broadcasting it on the six o'clock news. So when it's time to apply for college, give your social networking profiles a second look to make sure you feel comfortable sharing everything you have posted with an admission officer and, later, with potential employers because your site becomes permanent, public information about you.
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Tracking Twitter, Raising Red Flags
NYTimes.com, March 30, 2012
By Pete Thamel
The business plan of Varsity Monitor is simple. Major universities like North Carolina, Nebraska and Oklahoma pay $7,000 to $10,000 a year and Varsity Monitor keeps an online eye on their athletes.
Among the services the company and others like it provide is a computer application that searches social media sites that athletes frequent, looking for obscenities, offensive commentary or words like “free,” which could indicate that a player has accepted a gift in violation of N.C.A.A. rules.
“Every school, we work to customize their keyword list,” said Sam Carnahan, the chief executive of Varsity Monitor, which has offices in Seattle and New York and also provides educational programs to universities. “We look for things that could damage the school’s brand and anything related to their eligibility.”
Yet what may look to some like a business opportunity, and to universities and their athletic departments like due diligence, appears to others to be an invasion of privacy.
“I think it’s violating the Constitution to have someone give up their password or user name,” said Ronald N. Young, a Maryland state senator who has sponsored a bill that would make it harder for universities to monitor their athletes online. “It’s like reading their mail or listening to their phone calls.”
The debate on college campuses mirrors the larger conversation throughout the country over how much access to personal online activities private individuals can be compelled to give to employers. University administrators face a tricky situation when it comes to their players’ activity on social media, balancing issues of privacy while trying to guard against the possibility that an errant posting on Twitter or Facebook could result in trouble for an athlete or the athletic department. On March 12, North Carolina’s football program received a one-year bowl ban and lost 15 scholarships after an N.C.A.A. investigation that was prompted by a Twitter message sent by a player.
In the N.C.A.A.’s statement about North Carolina’s punishment, it hinted that institutions should be tracking public information made available by student-athletes if there is a “reasonable suspicion of rules violations.” That has caused an increase in business for Varsity Monitor and companies like UDiligence and Centrix Social. Some colleges require athletes to give them access to their Facebook or Twitter accounts, either by downloading software to monitor them or simply requiring that they let a coach, an administrator or a third-party company “friend” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.
“There’s this big gray area that we’re all going into right now,” said Bill Voth, the co-founder of Spiracle Media, a company that advises colleges about social media. “Schools like North Carolina need to protect themselves. But I can see the legal side with privacy issues.”
The men’s basketball teams participating in this weekend’s Final Four in New Orleans — Ohio State, Kentucky, Louisville and Kansas — represent the many ways that athletic departments are handling the newest forms of mass communication. Kentucky Coach John Calipari has more than a million Twitter followers, while Louisville Coach Rick Pitino bars his players from using Twitter during the season. Ohio State’s star player, Jared Sullinger, stopped sending Twitter messages in January to eliminate distractions.
With colleges worried about a situation similar to North Carolina’s occurring on their campuses, lingering questions remain: Where should the line be drawn? Can colleges monitor athletes without being invasive? And is it legal for a university to require that a student make his private information available?
Carnahan says his company tailors its service to whatever the university requests, allowing it to determine to what extent social media activities are monitored. But some college officials are uncomfortable with the notion of monitoring their athletes on social media, be it public or private content.
“If the university is going to screen all students or all prospective students or everyone that’s applied, we’ll engage in that with the university,” Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, said. “I can’t foresee a time where they would.”
Bradley S. Shear, a lawyer based in Maryland who works in sports law and social media, supports the bill Young introduced in Maryland. He said that a key difference in monitoring a student’s online activities, as opposed to an issue like drug testing, was that the content being searched for was inappropriate as opposed to illegal.
“The Supreme Court has ruled over and over again that students do not leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate,” Shear said. He said that any policy that required students to give access to “password-protected electronic content” was “a clear violation of their student’s First and Fourth Amendment Constitutional rights.”
He added of companies that monitor athletes’ online activities: “These companies are selling snake oil that contains a major legal liability time bomb. To me, there’s no difference in having to Facebook-friend a coach than turning over user name and password.”
Oklahoma’s athletic director, Joe Castiglione, said the university required its athletes to friend coaches on Facebook. He said that when athletes were questioned about something that appeared on their Facebook pages, they often responded, “Hey, you’re not supposed to see that.” He said his answer was, “Well, everyone else in the world can.”
Jeremy Foley, the athletic director at Florida, said his department contracted with UDiligence to monitor only the Gators’ football players. I’m not a big believer that it’s our responsibility to monitor that 24-7,” Foley said. “If there’s an issue, we’ll deal with it. We’re trying to run a business here. We’re not trying to be Big Brother.”
Varsity Monitor’s Carnahan said that by allowing the universities to determine how much access his company gets, it leaves a “white space” for colleges to make their own decisions. But Kevin DeShazo, the founder of Fieldhouse Media, another company in the expanding online monitoring field, said that his company does not access private information and that he is opposed to monitoring Facebook and forcing athletes to download applications or give access to password-protected content.
“To be forced to give you access, passwords or let them be friends with you on Facebook — I get why coaches feel like it’s necessary, but there has to be some level of respect and trust with these kids,” DeShazo said, adding that his company has focused on educating athletes about the perils of social media.
At North Carolina, where a message on Twitter from the former football player Marvin Austin in 2010 revealed that he was receiving impermissible benefits and was a factor in his being suspended for the season, the social media policy is strict.
Steve Kirschner, a spokesman for North Carolina’s athletic department, said each of the university’s sports teams had a coach or a staff member assigned to monitor Twitter messages sent by its players.
Roy Williams, the men’s basketball coach, said he recognized that social media were simply a fact of life. His players are permitted to use social media sites, though not without a warning.
“I tell the guys, ‘It’s America, you have freedom of speech,’ ” Williams said. “If you say something and it embarrasses me or the basketball program or your family, I’m going to be disappointed.”
The legal questions are not as simple, however, and the answers may not come from campuses but from courtrooms and legislatures.
“These are murky waters,” Voth said, “and it’s a problem that’s not going to be answered today or in a few months or a year.”