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Social Media Dos and Don’ts for College Students

In 2017, Harvard rescinded admissions offers from at least ten incoming students due to their offensive comments and memes within a closed Facebook group: “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” The students of the future class of 2021 joked about sexual assault, the Holocaust, the death of children, and other distasteful subjects. This situation illustrates a new phenomena in the age of social media: people’s statements online can follow them into perpetuity and impact their lives with immutable consequences.

Of course, a majority of young Americans share exciting moments, opinions, and more online through social media networks, but they may not realize some of the dangers. For example, the University of Pennsylvania warns that posts containing job titles, family members’ names, and even favorite charities can make users vulnerable to “spear phishing” efforts. In these attacks, phishing scammers use collected personal information to create speciously legitimate emails from businesses or people. The goal is to get the reader to click links and inadvertently provide scammers with passwords to bank accounts and other sensitive information.

While exploring the range of scams across social media is beyond the scope of this article, it’s important to remember that outside influencers—“bad actors”—also contribute to potential pitfalls of the web. This article explores the commonly understood effects of social media, how a person’s history on social media can be used, and how to avoid hidden dangers.

Short Term Effects on Social Media Usage

There are countless anecdotes, threads, and feeds dedicated to people who have posted the wrong things on social. The impact of these missteps ranges from mild embarrassment to the loss of a relationship or job opportunity. There are cases where the wrong post causes immediate ill effects, including a girl who tweeted, “Ew I start this f**k ass job tomorrow” and not surprisingly, promptly lost her new job.




Overall, social media oversharing and indiscretion can damage people who post, particularly in cases where they break the law; allow the wrong users to track their social accounts; or reveal activities deemed detrimental to job performance (e.g., drug use).

Breaking the Law

Logically, this should go without saying, yet people regularly post evidence online of illegal behavior. For example, the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning trained 100 officers to detect underage drinking at parties. These officers monitored social media and acted on real-time intelligence to stop upcoming parties, collaborating with parents and school officials in the process.

And the examples of law-breaking aren’t limited to underage drinking. College students upload the evidence of other crimes online and can be detected through tools such as Geofeedia—a social post tracking tool which was marketed to law enforcement. For example, police used Geofeedia to track a girl in Texas who stole her father’s car and gun before running away. It’s worth adding that in 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that Geofeedia was being abused by police, helping them to stifle protests, especially the Black Lives Matter movement. The service was only recently blocked by major social media outlets and has made several tech companies reexamine their privacy practices.

Allowing Others to Track You on Social Media

Snapchat’s geolocation tool Snap Map has set off alarm bells since it was announced in June 2017. Authorities and students alike fear that the map—which tracks the real-time location of the user—will aid stalkers and bullies in targeting victims. In a statement, Snap claims the user’s location is only visible while the app is open; that said, a person’s location is visible even if the app is running the background. Given the fact that Instagram already has been linked to several burglaries, Snap Map and other location-tracking services may put students at risk of these crimes as well.

Social Posts and Job Performance

Companies are using machine learning to scan the semantics of job candidates’ social media posts to understand more about them. One product called Fama was designed by a team of PhD data scientists and engineers determined to facilitate the hiring and firing processes; it claims that it can link a social media user’s posts to his or her performance in the workplace. By illustration, Fama suggests that racially motivated posts and content about drug usage, among other behaviors, are correlated with subpar work performance. As more HR departments adopt tools like this, both current and potential employees need to monitor outgoing content or risk losing their jobs.

Long-Term Effects

Examining the long-term effects of social media posts can help circumvent dangers. These days, vast data-mining capabilities, AI, and the indelible memory of the internet can follow a person throughout his or her life, affecting the perceptions of a person’s character in enduring ways.

Getting Hired

When seeking a new job, one’s online reputation is becoming more crucial. Fortune (May 2017) reported that emerging technologies are aiding employers in the recruiting and hiring processes. For example, companies are using AI programs to vet clients through their social media profiles, providing a wealth of information to potential employers. Entelo, a San Francisco-based company, is a virtual headhunter and cruises social profiles in search of high-value candidates who are actively employed. Entelo states that this insight gives recruiters the ability to engage with these candidates before the competition, ultimately providing a leg up in securing the most qualified and desired people for the job. While this tool is targeted at finding senior-level and mission-critical team members who are established in their careers, one can imagine the applications of similar technologies to the most promising fresh college graduates.

Of course, these observations can be used to a college student’s advantage, as well. In fact, Science Magazine examined what makes a successful employee and team. Surprisingly, it wasn’t based on previous success, whether team members were friends outside of work, or whether everyone had extraordinarily high IQs; in fact, one of the key predictors of success was how much equal members of the group talked. Regardless of whether or not a member of the group was an “expert” at a task, if all members spoke roughly the same amount, the group tended to achieve results quickly. By extension, the algorithms and machine learning offer companies the opportunity to glean years of data from a potential employee’s social media accounts to understand how well they play with others.

College students are encouraged to start planning for this future now and use social media as a place maintain strong relationships. Liberal use of words like “please” and “thank you” can demonstrate a person’s level of empathy. These small phrases feed into programs and can winnow down an applicant pool dramatically.

Getting a Loan

A person’s online reputation can also affect his or her ability to get a loan. Traditional loans are issued based on a few key factors, including credit scores, job stability, debt-to-income ratio, recent credit history, and other straightforward variables. While these remain the primary considerations in determining one’s candidacy, there are indicators that one’s social media fingerprint may also be used to determine loan readiness, including the creditworthiness of one’s peers. Facebook received a patent in 2015 to assess how creditworthy a person was based on the friends within the borrower’s social network. The patent, so far, has not been used and is mired in privacy concerns, but that hasn’t stopped financial institutions from looking into borrowers’ social media history. Informally, these platforms are being used to confirm employment and identity. Online presences also can indicate irresponsible spending or a perceived lack of earning potential through misspellings and grammatical errors. Overall, social accounts are beginning to influence who is eligible for mortgages, student loans, and other life-changing financial opportunities.

How to Mitigate the Dangers of Social Media

Ultimately, best practices on social media distill down to using common sense. Posting angry rants about former bosses don’t reflect well when a potential employer looks through posts or when a loan officer is gleaning social profiles with concerns about job stability. Below are actionable tips for current students and grads who want to portray themselves in the best light currently and into the future, regardless of the situation.

Google Yourself

Web-based reputation management is more than just a good idea for brands; it’s now crucial in the marketplace for college graduates to set themselves ahead of the competition as well. Common things to look out for include:

  • Unflattering comments made on blogs, groups (open and closed), or articles
  • Being tagged in inappropriate images
  • Embarrassing email or social media handles (e.g., @SexyGurl420 won’t impress many employers)

Not happy with Google results? Change the narrative. Untag all of the drunken mud run photos and create a professional-caliber blog, website, and LinkedIn profile.

Adjust Privacy Settings

Privacy settings are the unsung hero of social media, and students are strongly advised to set them accordingly. Some networks such as Facebook allow users to communicate only with specific audiences. Want to have a heartfelt dialogue about a family member’s illness? Restrict the post to family. By utilizing these settings, people have the ability to control the story and ensure that only audience members who understand the context are able to see the post.

Turn Off Geolocation

Most phones have the ability to turn off location services within settings. Doing this negates specific apps from having access. There are pros and cons to not having these services enabled:

  • Pro – Thieves, bullies, and stalkers won’t know where someone is and where to target them.
  • Con – Yelp won’t know where the closest coffee shop is.

If restricting all apps from using geolocation is too extreme, consider which apps need the location and review their privacy practices thoroughly.

Consider Creating a Dual Digital Identity

The modern day equivalent of keeping two diaries is having both “Rinsta” and “Finsta” accounts. The “finsta” (i.e., fake Instagram account) is filled with carefully curated images safe for any venue. Most often these accounts are given to parents or potential employers, providing a presentable image and the illusion of complete access to a person’s digital life. The “rinsta” accounts should be private and can include more candid photos, assuming they have non-traceable handles and other measures to ensure public anonymity.

Think Through Every Social Media Post

Think before posting. There’s no such thing as a “private” social media site. Search engines can yield written material and pictures years after the publication date. Comments can be forwarded, copied, or captured in screenshots. Archival systems such as the Wayback Machine save information even after a post is deleted. If someone feels angry or passionate about a subject, they should always delay posting until calm and clear-headed, only posting images that they would be comfortable sharing with the general public, including current and future peers and employers.

Everyone must remember that they are personally responsible for the content they publish on blogs, wikis, social channels, or any other form of user-generated content. Individual posters can be held liable for commentary deemed to be a copyright infringement, defamatory, proprietary, libelous, or obscene (as defined by the courts). College admissions committees and employers are conducting web searches on job candidates before extending offers, and some people are haunted by their past internet activity.

When used correctly, social media provides an invaluable opportunity to engage with others from all over the world, providing a more holistic, self-tailored learning experience and countless interactions. Those who benefit most from social media are people who exercise good judgment, discretion, and mutual respect for others. Colleges such as Oregon State University even have policies making students “responsible for creating and maintaining a climate free of discriminatory harassment.” It’s crucial to create free flow of ideas, but they should be discussed civilly without picking fights. If used effectively, participating in threads can show potential bosses one’s conflict resolution skills and analytical thinking, abilities which aren’t typically clear resumes. In sum, social media can give job and loan candidates the opportunity to demonstrate soft skills that enable success.

The central question is: who are you, and how does your social media activity reflect that?