Instagram. Snapchat. Twitter. Facebook. I’m sure I’m missing several. Most of us use social media to some extent, but teens and young adults are obsessed. In fact, a 2016 study estimated that teens spend an average of nine – yes nine! – hours per day in front of screens. Much of that time is spent on social media platforms.
We can all be naïve about actions and consequences, but teenagers raise this to an art form. We see it in their driving habits, or the decisions they make about alcohol consumption. We talk to our kids about such things, because we worry for their health and safety. When it comes to social media, we also worry that over-sharing could expose them to predators. We are right to be concerned, and we might even be able to get teenagers to listen to us regarding these topics.
But getting them to understand that the things they share and post on social media could hurt their chances of college admission is a more daunting task. Many young people say things like “it’s not a college’s right to look at that” – “colleges don’t look at that” – or “the information disappears, so they’ll never be able to see it.” I’ll address the first two arguments before wading into the murky waters of the third.
Yes, colleges DO have a right to look at your social media posts. Things posted on public platforms don’t enjoy a right to privacy. Period. Second, colleges DO look at social media platforms, and I’ll provide two examples to underscore my point. The first occurred in June 2017, when Harvard University rescinded the acceptances of at least 10 members of the Class of 2021 for posting offensive statements and memes on a group Facebook page. If you’d like to read more about this, I’ve shared the link to the Harvard Crimson article here: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2017/6/5/2021-offers-rescinded-memes/. Can you imagine getting accepted to Harvard, only to have that acceptance revoked for exercising such bad judgment? I bet the dinner table discussions were a bit strained in those households afterwards! Another example is from the University of Rochester, and it also occurred in 2017. In this particular instance, the student applied – and was accepted – as a homeschooled student. She never sent her transcripts from the private school she actually attended. Then, she posted on social media that she would be attending U of R, and representatives from her school caught wind of it. They knew they had never submitted materials on her behalf, so they contacted the university, which promptly revoked her acceptance. https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2017/08/28/u-rochester-revokes-admissions-offer-student-who-lied-her-way.
Most recently, a study of law school admissions officers revealed that a majority of them also check applicants’ social media profiles. Yes, colleges, law and professional schools, and employers all can - and sometimes do - check out applicants in this manner. If the pictures and posts cast someone in an unfavorable light, it could be game over. It makes sense, actually. And it is entirely appropriate.
Now, as to the third objection, namely that posts on certain sites like Snapchat and Instagram disappear and are thus “unseeable”, I can only say this: there is an information underground, and nothing ever really disappears. I couldn’t possibly explain the technology behind the storage and retrieval of such data, as I do not understand it. But I do know that a false confidence that this material is somehow beyond the grasp of people who want to find it is just that. False.
I discuss these issues with all of my students. I discuss them with my own children. Do they take my concerns seriously? I can only hope so.