In VOX's safe space, a lesson in protecting your online reputation
I squinted hard at the computer screen over the teen’s shoulder to make sure I had read his Twitter account name correctly. My jaw hit the floor as I attempted to connect the string of obscenities he used to describe himself in his gangsta rap-inspired Twitter persona with the polite, soft-spoken, Bible-quoting kid I have gotten to know in our newsroom. At VOX, this sensitive 16-year-old exhibits a passion for taking photographs, fashion and singing. His tweets, meanwhile, read like the rantings of drug kingpin who could cop to offing Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls at any second.
Welcome to the inaugural “Your Digital Imprint” VOX teen workshop.
In my first few months here as associate editor, I noted that today’s teens are the first generation to live their lives online 24/7 in real time. Their lives are a constantly changing swirl of Facebook status updates, tear-stained Tumblr blogs about their personal relationships, posted Twitpics and uploaded videos on YouTube channels dedicated to their lives.
A Pew Internet national study released last fall reports:
— 95 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 are now online
— 69 percent of teens have their own computer or smart phone device to access the Internet
— 80 percent of these online teens use social media sites
Much of this digital sharing can create a connectedness among teens who often battle feelings of isolation. But it can also lead to trouble when college admissions officers and prospective employers begin conducting background checks via teens’ social media profiles. After discussing the idea with VOX executive director Rachel Alterman Wallack and managing editor Katie Strangis (who, blessedly, both have master degrees in social work), I set about creating a workshop to amp up awareness for our teens about the potential perils of oversharing online.
Exhibit A in the workshop: former Georgia public school teacher Ashley Payne, 24, who found herself on a one-way trip to the principal’s office in 2009 after she posted Facebook photos of herself enjoying an adult beverage (or two) during a summer European vacation. Forced to resign, Payne is still fighting to get her job back.
A lively debate emerged as the teens read aloud a Daily Pennsylvanian article about a recent Kaplan Test Prep study that reported 41 percent of law school admissions officers at 359 different schools admitted to Googling applicants. Students have responded by deactivating their Facebook and Twitter accounts while applying to law schools.
The workshop’s guest speaker was Carolyn Sloss (at right with our teens), the vice-president of publicity and promotions for Allied Integrated Marketing. Carolyn confirmed the teens’ worst fears — she and other employers are checking out applicants’ online reputations. And what they find online can determine whether or not you score that valuable internship or important entry-level position. She tempered this troubling information with goodie bags for the VOXers, courtesy of Allied, filled with DVDs of angst-riddled “Twilight” teen vampires and werewolves.
In our computer lab, the teens themselves took the lead for the workshop’s final component. They were asked to fire up their favorite social media profile. Then they were asked to switch places with the teen sitting next to them and play the role of college admissions officer or employer and make decisions about each other, based on what they found on those social media profiles. The teens playing the admissions officers giggled as they uncovered racy photos and R-rated tweets as two of the teen applicants raced to hit the off switch on their computers.
We talked through their feelings of discomfort and I reassured them about the benefits of having an opportunity to edit and remove questionable content among friends in their safe space at VOX before strangers had a chance to discover the unflattering material.
As one teen told me after the workshop, “It taught us that what you post on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr can really get you into trouble. From now on, I only tweet about sports and Jesus!”