October 8, 2012

When I went to College Night at my daughter’s high school last week, I was totally shocked to hear that colleges hire experts to snoop around the Facebook profiles of prospective students. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to be a kid.

Sure, the guidance counselors talked about application deadlines, financial aid and SAT scores. But they also pounded out the warning that students must clean up their Facebooks. While college recruiters don’t screen every applicant’s FB, they will do it when they feel like it. And this is a message that brought home to me how much the world has changed.

Now I’m understanding that the personal branding which is so essential to adult professional success actually begins very early in life. With today’s kids hooked on social networking and their mobiles devices, every status update makes a statement about that teen’s values, goals and moral character (or lack of it).

Even though we all know that employers check out Facebook profiles of prospective employees, it’s really sobering to realize that colleges are doing the same thing with kids that apply to their schools.

For students to shoulder the personal branding process at such a young age is insane. Seems to me that they have lost the freedom to spontaneously play-act and, just play. Instead, they need to learn 21st century responsibility. They have to stay smart about maintaining Facebook privacy settings, which means continuously monitoring both their status feeds and uploaded photos.

The situation also has implications for adults: We need to get serious about safeguarding the rights of children in cyberspace.

The New York Times recently ran an article about the Federal Trade Commission’s proposal for new regulations that would offer younger children more online protection. Here’s a quote from the article:

The proposed revisions expand the definition of “personal information” to include a child’s location, along with any personal data collected through the use of cookies for the purposes of targeted advertising. It also covers facial recognition technology. Web sites that collect a child’s information would be required to ensure that they can protect it, hold onto it “for only as long as is reasonably necessary,” and then delete the information safely.

The F.T.C. also suggested that parental consent should no longer be obtained through a two-step e-mail and authorization process, but through alternate methods, like getting scanned versions of signed consent forms and videoconferencing.

Like most teens, my daughter is constantly uploading new photos of herself hanging out. Her routine also includes waking up the next morning and going through her Facebook to remove tags of herself from pictures uploaded by her pals, along with ordering friends to delete shots that she dislikes.

The other day for the first time, I watched, speechless, as she went through the curating process. She was all business and very clear about what was acceptable and what was not. (Of course, I only got to observe for about two minutes because then she closed her bedroom door on me. Old-fashioned privacy is still the top priority, haha.)

Welcome to the new reality. Yeah.

If you want to read more, click here for a Huffington Post piece from Feb. 28, 2011 about a Kaplan Test Prep survey which shows that 80 percent of college admissions officers use Facebook to check out prospective students. At that time, about a quarter used it to actually check an applicant via Google or Facebook — and only when there’s a reason to flag the application.

But with the practice out there, the guidance counselors warned us that these days, anything and everything that students post online is fair game, giving us all reason to worry about our kids’ Facebook (and our own profiles too).

What next? My feeling is we should keep on shuttling around the Internet — but with greater self-awareness. And, wariness.


NOTE ADDED Oct. 9, Tuesday: Am I intuitive or what? This post went up at 12:01 a.m. on Monday. Hours later, Kaplan put out a new study — I had no idea it was coming out! Anyways, the report notes that admissions officers are increasingly Googling student applicants, etc., and finding stuff that they don’t like. Here’s a quote from the new report:  

Results from Kaplan Test Prep’s 2012 survey of college admissions officers* show that schools are increasingly discovering information on Facebook and Google that negatively impact applicants’ acceptance chances. While the percentage of admissions officers who took to Google (27%) and checked Facebook (26%) as part of the applicant review process increased slightly (20% for Google and 26% for Facebook in 2011) from last year, the percentage that said they discovered something that negatively impacted an applicant’s chances of getting into the school nearly tripled – from 12% last year to 35% this year. Offenses cited included essay plagiarism, vulgarities in blogs, alcohol consumption in photos, things that made them “wonder,” and “illegal activities.” In 2008, when Kaplan began tracking this trend, only one in 10 admissions officers reported checking applicants’ social networking pages.