September 18, 2014

The Internet is now older than most high school students.

The Internet was opened for public consumption in 1996 and most high school seniors were born in 1997. Their digital footprint may have started at birth.

Katie Koestner, a digital media and student safety expert, told Culver Academies students their first exposure on the Internet may have come after their mothers posted photos of them “when you were two years old, cute and adorable – not that you’re not cute and adorable now.”

The scary part is that those cute and adorable photos may still exist in some corner of the World Wide Web. So too are the photographs that you may not want college admissions officials or prospective employers to see. And, maybe, those photos that you never thought anyone else but your boyfriend or girlfriend may see could be out there, too.

Koestner told students about several real life cases of students – both college and high school age – getting into trouble with the law, being turned down for jobs, rejected by a college, and losing scholarships because of their mishandling of digital media.

Katie Koestner told students to be careful about what they put on social media sites. Culver photo/Jan Garrison

Katie Koestner told students to be careful about what they put on social media sites. Culver photo/Jan Garrison

She reminded them that when they set up an account on a social media site like Facebook and click the “I agree” to the terms and conditions of usage, they are sacrificing their privacy for the company’s profit. The company can use every bit of personal information and every photograph posted. While the information can be removed, companies intentionally uses the term “when practical,” which means after it can no longer make a profit off the information. That can take up to three years.

Students should also remember that colleges and companies are doing more and more background checking on social media sites before admitting students or hiring people, Koestner said. Seventy percent of the highly competitive colleges are now doing social media searches, especially on potential students being considered for major scholarships and borderline students. Companies are using sites like Spokeo, which is designed to cull as much of an individual’s information as possible from the Internet.

That photo of someone holding a red Solo cup may seem harmless, Koestner explained, but to a college admissions officer it may be a reason to rule out an applicant. While it seems far-fetched, she pointed out that MIT lost a $2 million lawsuit when a drunken student was killed after falling off a balcony. With colleges trying to reduce binge drinking on campuses, they simply do not want to take that risk.

The nude Valentine’s Day photo a high school senior girl gave her boyfriend cost her a full ride scholarship after she had already started her freshman year of college. She had to pay back the portion of the scholarship she had already used, Koestner said.

The scholarship contained specific character and integrity criteria. Even though the photo did not become public until that fall, it still carried the time and location stamps, which proved she violated the criteria before accepting the scholarship. The photo was released when her boyfriend, who was at a different college, forgot to lock his phone at lunch and his “friends” sent the photo to everyone on his contact list as a joke.

Koestner said if anyone ever asks for a suggestive photo, reply “If you respected me you wouldn’t have asked.”

Even the mention of being anorexic in a social media post can cost somebody a job opportunity. Studies have found that people suffering from anorexia nervosa are not as productive as other employees because they are constantly thinking about food, she explained.

Deleting the information from your personal social media site doesn’t mean the tweet, post, or photo doesn’t exist elsewhere. The web is similar to copies of a book, she explained. Even if you tear out a page in the original book, the page remains in all the other copies have been distributed.

The web is similar to copies of a book, she explained. Even if you tear out a page in the original book, the page remains in all the other copies have been distributed.

Also, “bad news” on the Internet is like oil on water. It floats to the top. When people get into a social media fights, it only keeps the thread going, causing it to rise in importance. This makes it easier to find by search engines like Spokeo. Cleaning up a celebrity’s social media presence has gotten to a point that public relations sites like Reputation.com can charge up to $2,000 to “sprinkle fairy dust” across the Web to help reform the person’s image.

For students, Koestner said, “The best solution to pollution is dilution.” That means take an inventory of your social media presence, update your information, then delete. That means changing out those questionable profile photos with others of similar size, mention in posts the positive things you are doing, and then wait three months. That is average refresh time for the Internet. Then go back and delete the negative items.

This will help the newer posts rise to the top during searches. But make sure you are doing in real life what you say you are doing online, she said. It may seem like bragging, but there is nothing wrong with presenting a positive image. Look at social media as writing your autobiography, she said. Be honest, but “If it doesn’t help you, don’t use it.”

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