As a volunteer admissions interviewer for my alma mater, I often look up my interviewees on Facebook or Twitter the day we’re scheduled to meet. I may scan their public profiles, but not with any attention to detail. I really only look for photos so I can easily identify the students in whichever busy DC coffee shop we’ve arranged to conduct the interview. It wouldn’t occur to me personally to judge these students based on their public profiles. As a twenty-something I realize that if photos implying crazy parties and underage drinking were personal deal breakers, I would have very few friends at this point. But the unfortunate fact for some teens is that many people don’t share that attitude.

 

When I make these cursory searches, I’m often amused by the futile measures students take in an effort not to be seen by people affiliated with their dream school’s admissions office—people like me. Sometimes they’ll change their names on Facebook, using their real first name and a silly, made-up last name. Sometimes they’ll use a nickname and no last name. In doing so, they may add about 60 seconds to my search. Sometimes it’s their high school that gives it away. Sometimes it’s a Facebook friendship with a relative who shares their real last name. Either way, if I have a student’s basic information I can generally find them on social media with very little effort. It’s startling how few students realize this. If they struggle to conceal this information over which they have total editorial control, they would clearly struggle even more to manage public information other people are collecting on them.

 

A guidance counselor from Tennessee, Julie Anne Culp, created an excellent experiment to teach her fifth graders about Internet safety. On November 18, 2013, she took a photo holding a sign that read, “I’m talking to my 5th grade students about internet safety and how quickly a photo can be seen by lots of people. If you are reading this, please click “LIKE.” Thanks!” She posted it on Facebook. 12 days later it had been liked nearly 400,000 times and shared more than 30,000 times. At that point it was picked up by major news outlets and went on to be liked over 4 million times. It was an excellent experiment, and one that all students should be exposed to.

 

The next step is teaching students what to do with their inherent potential to go viral. In 2014 it hardly makes sense for students try and wash away all traces of themselves online. First of all, that is next to impossible. But perhaps more importantly, the Internet can present terrific opportunities to engage with people from around the world an a whole host of important topics, and it can help students put their best foot forward if used responsibly. Here are a some ideas for teaching students how they can exercise some control over their online presence.

 

Have students log out of all their accounts, delete all of their cookies, and Google their names as though they were strangers trying to learn something about themselves for the first time. What do they find? Is everything that comes up something they’re proud of? Ask them to imagine an adult they respect doing the very same search.

 

Follow this up by asking students to make a list of qualities they want to be associated with online. Then ask them to think of ways to make this a part of their online presence. For instance, a student who wants to be known as someone who cares about the environment might list the following as ways to have that reflected in his or her online presence:

 

  • Like environmental groups on Facebook and post thoughtful comments on their walls.
  • Engage with environmental groups on Twitter.
  • Share interesting photos and news articles about the environment as public posts on social media, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Google plus.
  • Start a blog about news relating to the environment, or personal experiences in nature.
  • Start an environmental student group at school or in your local community. Create a website to educate the community on their part in environmental conservation.

 

(The last two bullet points show that this exercise can still be carried out by students fully abstaining from social media.)

 

I believe it’s more effective to place the emphasis on developing a positive online presence, over avoiding a negative online presence. This avoids marginalizing students who may already have some embarrassing things online that they can’t do anything about, instead empowering them to overshadow those things with the positive work that can come out of this exercise. It also avoids making the Internet seem like an awful place, when really it can be an excellent place for learning if used safely and responsibly.