Our kids have grown up on Facebook. They log untold hours exchanging messages, posting pictures, posing for pictures they can post, and commenting on each other’s messages and pictures. They measure their success as teenagers by how many “friends” they have on Facebook. Their on-line presence is very real to them, despite its meta-reality, and that web-based existence has come to define, in part, who they are. Social media has taken a front seat in modern culture, and what used to be local news, or even gossip, is now as public as public gets – the WHOLE WORLD can see whatever they put on there – and that is real, and doesn’t go away.
This fact is not lost to college admissions counselors, and they, too, are out there looking at our kids on the world wide web. According to a 2011 Kaplan survey of college admissions officers, in fact, more than 80 percent of them consider social media presence when recruiting students. That means that eight of the 10 colleges your son or daughter is applying to will probably be checking them out online.
So, when is the last time you google’d your high school senior? I just did. Glad to report there was nothing scandalous. Many teens, however, feel the need (or should) to “scrub” their online existence before they invite the scrutiny of the college admissions folks. There are stories out there of college admissions officers actually taking an applicant from the “yes” pile and moving him to the “no” pile based on what they have seen on Facebook, and even if that is urban myth, it is a scary enough story to urge our kids to action.
So, here is what I want to know: Is there an app for that? We can order food, get directions, make dentist appointments, preview movies, track our menstrual cycle, check the snow fall in Park City…but can we click a button and clean up our digital reputation? Surely, somebody out there knows how to program for this – find anything tawdry, untoward, unattractive, unintelligent, embarrassing, or criminal, and erase it? Or at least dissociate it from our search-able selves?
Or, perhaps, there is value in our kids reviewing their own electronic profile, looking hard at who they are presenting to the outside, seeing their comments and pictures from a stranger’s perspective. Maybe this self-evaluation is a healthy reminder of what our parents told us in the dark ages: that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So, come on kids! Get to the keyboard. Look at yourselves through your grandmothers’ eyes. And if you find yourself wincing, or scrunching your face or shoulders, go ahead and hit delete, un-tag, un-friend…whatever it takes.
My niece, an RA at a small liberal arts college in California, helped her freshmen with this process – when they blew off her suggestions to clean up their online “faces,” saying it was no big deal, she merely printed up a few of the most colorful examples of digital bad judgment, and posted them on the bulletin board in the hallway of the dorm. They were predictably embarrassed, and she rested her case.
I’m not sure why our kids feel like there is any privacy on the internet, but if ever there was a time to remind them that others really are looking, it would be now, right before they send the Common App., right before they become this season’s topic of conversation. Until we collectively sort through the challenges of this new era of split personality, where we can be one thing in real life and another online, it will serve our children well to remind them that our digital words and deeds really do matter, just as much as the real ones.