August 20, 2017

Student Social Media: The False Equivalence of “Nothing to Hide” and “Something to Show”



When it comes to college admissions, scholarships, and jobs almost all students are now acutely aware that a college or employer will be checking their digital presence.

A recent survey of more than 1,000 20-25 year old recent and soon to be college graduates found that 68% of respondents said they would never try to hide their social media accounts from potential employers.

In assessing these findings, the survey sponsor surmised: “This transparency is a boon for potential employers: Social media provides a wealth of information for hiring managers.” While this statement is absolutely true, it perfectly illustrates an important false equivalence. 

After years of negative reinforcement, students have been conditioned to hide their true online activities from family, colleges, and employers. The ascendency of Instagram and Snapchat as the most popular teen social networks helps prove this point.

Young people started flocking away from Facebook as soon as adults started arriving. New apps promising user anonymity and/or content ephemerality are routinely introduced into the app stores (for the latest hot entry see: Sarahah). Students are expert, so they believe, at hiding their real digital presence from family and future decision-makers by purposefully moving their activities further away from their watchful and judgmental eyes.

We still hear about occasional student miscues, such as when Harvard University rescinded acceptances and when high schools are forced to discipline students for egregious social media mistakes. Yet, most surveys indicate that high school and college students are generally comfortable with colleges and employers viewing their public social media profiles.

The admitted Harvard students, who falsely believed their identities were securely protected by aliases, learned a harsh lesson of bringing their underground digital habits to the surface. These students assumed the invisibility they are accustomed to extends to Facebook. While these students were talented enough to be accepted by Harvard, they failed to understand even the most basic tenets of social media: permanence, discoverability, and reach.

Earlier this summer, The Washington Post addressed this core issue when it reported: “We’re having the wrong conversations with our kids around social media. When we focus on fear and judgment — when we say ‘don’t do that because you’ll get in trouble,’ or ‘if you do that, you won’t get into college’ — kids will just go underground and find other ways to hide their online interactions.”

This is precisely where young people have congregated. They have buried their online activities in places where they believe colleges and employers will be unable to find them. This brings into focus a crucial point: having less of a digital presence will not necessarily yield beneficial results.

When it comes to achieving college and career objectives, having nothing to hide on social media does not equate to having something to show. We can overcome the fear of posting bad content by teaching students the importance of creating and posting reflective, outwardly facing content. The current prevailing approach fails to change student behavior. Simply scaring students without an educational element is an outdated approach.

More and more colleges and employers are using social media to learn about their applicants in ways never before possible. They are not interested in finding embarrassing posts or objectionable content. The missing piece of this puzzle is emphasizing to students the importance of building a presence that distinguishes them and tells their story: their diversity, personal successes and challenges, their unique interests and talents. This is the content that will help them stand out in a competitive academic and professional environment.

Social media can be used to build a digital presence that advances a student’s academic and career objectives in unique and powerful ways. Avoiding the negatives while not publishing the positives yields a digital presence devoid of any actionable information. 

Most college counselors and career planners view social media as a wild card that needs to be neutralized so it does not interfere with the traditional metrics of grades, test scores, essays, resumes and cover letters. They neither understand nor try to teach the essential skills and networking techniques students need to build a compelling, discoverable and beneficial digital presence.

Parents and educators who advocate approaching social media with caution and even abstinence have good intentions but lack the appreciation of how technology can be used for good. Typical advice will tell students: (1) Google yourself; (2) Adjust your privacy settings; and (3) Only post content you would want your grandmother to see. This simplistic advice is inherently flawed as it fails to acknowledge the critical learning necessary to develop the skills to thrive in our connected world.

It is incumbent upon this group of influencers to educate themselves so they can proactively teach and empower students to use social media as a tool to help them achieve their worthy dreams and highest aspirations.

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