Here we go again. Another student has lost his acceptance to Harvard because of stupid online posts online at age 16.
It’s imperative to talk to kids about their digital reputations, often and early. Many schools address this by inviting online safety experts to their campus. But often these “experts” either lecture kids or rely on scare tactics that either don’t work or backfire completely.
Kids take to adults talking at them about their digital world like birds take to dogs telling them how to fly.
A better way to help kids understand the importance of maintaining a positive digital reputation is by letting them experience it from a different perspective.
A Lesson on Digital Reputation That Sticks
During our first year of Cyber Civics, I tell my students the earlier story of poor almost-Harvard students who lost acceptance to this prestigious university because of racist posts in what they thought was a "private" Facebook group. To help that story sink in, I challenge students to image they are college admissions officers. I even let them decide what college they want to pretend to represent. Since we are in California, the ones that come to their minds include Stanford, UCLA, and Cal, some of the hardest in the state, and country, to get into. Next, the students peruse online content I have gathered (all made up, of course) about two fictional applicants and use that information to decide which candidate is most worthy of receiving the full scholarship they are awarding.
They start by reading each student’s (fake) application letter. The candidates—one male
and one female—describe themselves and tell of their high GPAs, excellent test scores, and numerous extracurricular activities. Both claim to be outstanding athletes. Since it’s impossible to decide which one is more deserving based solely upon this self-reporting, students turn to each applicant’s (fake) “digital billboard” to learn more.
Before this activity, students have already learned that a digital billboard is a collection of a person’s online activities—their digital reputation. While often referred to as a digital footprint, we call it a billboard for a couple of reasons. First, as students have pointed out to me, footprints are easily washed away. To them, a billboard seems more permanent. Second, anyone and everyone on the “information superhighway” can see a billboard. It advertises what kind of person you are.
My students quickly discover that the content of each applicant’s digital billboard isn’t so stellar. The male applicant, Dave, a talented soccer player, posted a picture of himself toilet-papering a neighbor’s house and also posted a YouTube video of the escapade. Ouch. Plus, a newspaper article said he’d allegedly been caught hacking into his school’s computer to access a biology test. Furthermore, a club he said he belonged to posted on its Facebook page that he had been dropped for missing too many meetings.
When the students turn their attention to the female applicant, Kate, a prospective English major in the school’s honor society, they discover her food blog is full of grammatical errors and misspelled words. On her Instagram feed, someone had accused her of using a photo that belonged to someone else. She appears scantily dressed in another social media post, and her name does not appear in the list of honor society members on the school’s website.
My young students, most of whom are just starting to use social media themselves, judge these applicants harshly. Neither, they decide, is worthy of a scholarship.
But there’s more to this lesson. After students make their decision, they must go back to take another look at each candidate’s digital trail. Upon closer inspection, they notice that the “Dave” who was accused of hacking was a different person from the “David” who had applied for the scholarship. It is not uncommon for two students at a large school to share a last name, I explain. Besides, had they studied the information I gave them more carefully, they would have noticed that the “Dave” in the article plays lacrosse, not soccer. Plus, I point out, the Facebook post that said he was being dropped from the club’s roster was several months old. Something else they had overlooked.
Students realize they missed some important details about Kate as well. Her school’s website had not been updated in nearly a year, which explains why she did not appear in its honor society list. Oftentimes, this closer inspection leaves my students feeling deflated. “It’s not fair,” they say. “It’s so easy for mistakes to happen online, even mistakes that aren’t your fault. Plus, sometimes other people post stuff about you that’s not true.” They also say, “Kids joke around online a lot,” and they wonder if adults can tell when kids post things in jest, or when they are being sarcastic. “Do adults take all of this into consideration?” they want to know. My answer?
Maybe, but don’t count on it.
People Are Judging You By What They See Online
Just as my students made snap judgments about the two fictional applicants, based on a cursory review of each one’s digital billboard, people in real life do this all the time. Bradley Shear, a D.C.-based lawyer specializing in social media law, thinks this is a big problem. In an interview with the New York Times, Shear says, “Colleges might erroneously identify the account of a person with the same name . . . or even mistake an impostor’s account—as belonging to the applicant, potentially leading to unfair treatment. ‘Often . . . false and misleading content online is taken as fact.’”
As founder and general counsel of a company called Digital Armour, Shear advises students, professionals, and corporate clients about the legal, privacy, reputation, and security issues inherent in the digital age. “Kids are going to make mistakes,” says Shear. “Why should these mistakes be tied to them for the rest of their lives?”
Shear told me about a client of his who had been admitted into one of the most prestigious universities in the world. This applicant had his offer and a $250,000 scholarship revoked because of an alleged inappropriate Face-book like and an emoji about the 2016 presidential election.
“This was a kid with the highest privacy settings,” Shear said. Despite this, one of the applicant’s “Facebook friends” had taken a screenshot of the alleged inappropriate “like” and emoji, saved it for months, and then sent it anonymously to the admissions office of the school Shear’s client had been accepted to. The school contacted the applicant, who verified the long- deleted “like” and emoji. Subsequently, the applicant’s offer and scholarship were rescinded.
I'd Heard This Story Before
Shear’s story is eerily similar to one I heard from an admissions officer who works for a California university. She told me she’d received a manila envelope in the mail, no return address, filled with screenshots allegedly from the “fake” social media accounts of a female applicant. A note that accompanied the images claimed they were being sent by another prospective student. It read, “You need to know what this girl is really like; she’s not as squeaky-clean as you think.”
“The envelope was filled with half-naked selfies, posts strewn with foul language,” the admissions officer told me. “Not only could I not believe what I was seeing, I also couldn’t believe that another student would go to such lengths to bring this to my attention. I thought to myself, ‘Is this really what we’ve come to?’”
According to Shear, “Colleges, graduate schools, and employers do not revoke offers because applicants lack a robust digital life; however, they have and will continue to reject applicants if they find something online that raises a question about an applicant’s character, integrity, or judgment.”
Please tell your kids that anything they say or do online, or that others say or do about them, speaks volumes about their character. And that character still matters.
Excerpted from "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology" (HarperCollins Leadership)