The recent backlash over racially charged Halloween photos posted online by several Baltimore private school students reinforces the need for teens and others to understand that it’s not just their friends who may view their digital images, but the entire Internet, which includes colleges, employers and media outlets from around the world. In fact, some organizations will only accept you if you give them complete access to your accounts.
Several years ago, Maryland’s Stevenson University required a student athlete to resign from its ice hockey team after she refused to allow a university employee to monitor her private social media accounts. And in June, Harvard University revoked offers to at least 10 prospective students who made online comments that school officials deemed inappropriate.
In my work, I have successfully defended and advised many students accused of inappropriate online behavior by Harvard and other universities and graduate schools. And I’ve furthered legislation to curb the prying. In 2012, for example, Maryland became the first state to ban employers from requiring workers and applicants to hand over social media passwords and usernames, thanks to legislation introduced by Maryland State Sen. Ronald Young, which I helped push through. Three years later, we got another bill passed that protects students applying to Maryland colleges and graduate schools from having to share their personal political or religious social media posts. But residents who apply to schools in other states may still be required to authenticate their digital activities.
That’s why it’s imperative to perform an in-depth audit of your digital life and delete any potentially inappropriate content before applying to college, graduate school or a new job. Students need to know that discussing their religion, political beliefs, controversial personal activities or connections to those whose values may conflict with a member of the admissions staff or human resources department may be used against their candidacy. In general, teens should limit their searchable digital footprint by creating fake accounts, utilizing robust privacy settings, deploying virtual private networks and so on to protect their personal digital activities from increasing collegiate and corporate digital surveillance.
Besides social media, many colleges are also collecting and reviewing their applicants’ web usage by deploying software that tracks the Internet history of students and their families. For example, Stevenson University uses an Orwellian service that enables it to track the personal surfing habits of its applicants.
Tweets, emojis, likes, Instagram photos; visits to religious, political, health and financial aid websites may be included in a college applicant’s digital dossier. Earlier this year, a client of mine who was admitted into one of the most prestigious universities in the world had his offer and a $250,000 scholarship revoked from his dream school over an alleged inappropriate Facebook like and emoji regarding the 2016 presidential election.
Even though this teen’s social media accounts had the highest privacy settings, a “Facebook friend” took a screen shot of the alleged inappropriate like and emoji, saved it for months, and anonymously sent it to the admissions office of the teen’s top college choice. The university contacted the student, and after he verified that he was responsible for the long-deleted like and emoji, his offer and scholarship were revoked.
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.
To paraphrase some ancient wisdom for the Digital Age: It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to post online and remove all doubt.
Brad Shear is the founder and general counsel of Digital Armour which advises students, professionals, and corporate clients about the legal, privacy, reputation, & security issues inherent in the Digital Age. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.