By Brittany Maschal, EdD, IECA Associate (NY)

High school students today usually know what to remove from or make private on their social media accounts, but it’s far better to be safe than sorry when the time to apply to college comes around. What you don’t know can possibly hurt you, which is why I conduct a social media audit on all my students, and I often ask that parents do the same. I let students and parents know through my monthly emails, so they know it’s not targeted or personal.

This wasn’t something I included as part of my practice when I first launched. I’ve been on Facebook since college, so adding Twitter and Instagram accounts five years or so ago seemed natural. As did Snapchat more recently—out of total curiosity and a desire to take those cute little Koala ear pics with my stepdaughter. What I did not know was that my suggested “friends” and “people you may know” lists would grow exponentially because of my business. Very frequently I started seeing students and their parents pop up on my feeds as potential friends or followers. At first, I didn’t mind seeing their smiling faces or fun family profile pics as I scrolled—that is, until I saw far more than I wanted to see.

I won’t go into too much detail about the first risqué Twitter page I encountered, but it was bad. Nudity, profanity, drug use—all right there staring me in my dumbfounded face. I mean, I was only in college a few more than 10 years ago so I know what goes on, but having it all out there in the open, on the Internet, for the whole wide world and web to see, was another story.

That’s when the social media audit was born. When a student signs on to work with me, I now do everything you’re told not to do before a blind date: I Google them; look them up on all the social channels I access; and take note of any inappropriate posts, pics or tags. Sometimes, as it did that fateful day (thank you, Twitter, for what I will never be able to un-see), the conversations that result are hard. It is very embarrassing for the student when they realize you saw them dressed in X or doing Y online, and that it needs to come down because if a college sees it, it won’t be looked at lovingly. It’s worse to talk to parents about it, especially if they have already seen it and have done nothing about it. Yeah, that’s happened.

Upon conducting the audits, I soon realized that students need to go beyond keeping in check what they post and monitor what others post of them and or tag them in online. Explaining this can be tough because they can’t always go back and get every friend to untag them in every inappropriate post or wait to have every post reported and then removed—post removal is complicated and varies across different social channels. On Facebook you can remove the tag so the post no longer links to your timeline; ask the person who tagged you to remove the post; or block the person who tagged you (this is mutual). On Instagram, you can untag yourself by clicking on “more options” and then “remove me from photo.” You may also choose “hide from profile” if you simply choose to hide but not untag yourself.

Another strategy students can use is to move those posts down on their profile by creating new content that comes before it, or if they own the content (it is their post), delete it completely. On many social channels, adding new appropriate posts or pictures will move older posts lower on their page. This works very well on Facebook and Twitter, but it gets tricky on Instagram, where photos do not always show in feeds chronologically. Instagram’s saving grace is that you can untag yourself, hide items from your profile, and delete Instagram photos. Snapchat is its own animal. Although messages disappear quickly, there are ways that users can save and share them, usually on other forms of social media. So students need to be aware that the three-second Snap they posted could come back to haunt them. A good rule of thumb is to simply keep posts appropriate.

I don’t know any admissions officers who have time to scroll through more than a page of results on Google or the first few posts in a feed or who are searching, adding, and monitoring students on Snapchat, but I think the moral of the story about how the social media audit was born is that what you put out into the world online matters.

Brittany Maschal, Brittany Maschal Consulting, can be reached at [email protected]

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