Protecting Yourself Against Internet Indiscretion

I was recently reminded of an unfortunate reality of the “Internet Age”—despite being part of arguably the most technology savvy generation in history, today’s college students really don't know what they should put on the Internet.  This issue is not new. In fact, it is so prominent that scholars and journalists have given it a name—The Privacy Paradox.  According to the paradox, despite caring about their privacy, people behave recklessly when it comes to their personal information and talking about their private activities

For example, an older Cornell Daily Sun article (“Four Loko Maker to Halt New York State Deliveries by Friday” by Jeff Stein) quoted several students admitting (at least implicitly) to the purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The interesting part about this story is not that students were quoted admitting to the consumption of alcohol, but rather that some of them were underage. Not surprisingly, a simple Facebook search of those students' names validated their ages; the whole thing took about a minute of my time, my laptop and the poor excuse for an Internet connection in my apartment

These students’ indiscretion is not limited to instances of quotation oversight in popular media. Rather, current students and recent college graduates recklessly post pictures of themselves in compromising situations on their Facebook profiles, write tweets of questionable character and display a generally nonchalant attitude when it comes to their online presence. For example, one recent Cornell graduate used very “colorful” language that included the f-word in a public tweet discussing his non-verbal, visual interactions with a woman at the gym. This student happens to be in his first year of graduate school at NYU and will probably be looking for a full-time job in the coming years.

All of this is to say, there is a problem. Most people would cast this as an issue of Internet privacy, but while privacy may be a relevant concern, the more fundamental problem is poor judgment—specifically of college-aged students.  In a world of online media, web crawlers, and Google, large amounts of information is easily and quickly accessible, which necessitates increased discretion and good judgment from curren college students and recent college graduates.

To be sure, lets consider a hypothetical scenario. What if a potential employer does a simple background search on a prospective employee?  It wouldn't take more than 10 minutes and an Internet connection to find incriminating evidence against a student who has been quoted in a popular news outlet that frequents the top of the search listings; with services like Spokeo, which aggregate a person’s online presence into one easily accessible page, the process of finding indiscretions becomes even simpler than using Google. The consequences of this for a student's job search or graduate school application are akin to those of more significant crimes.

This last statement deserves qualification. While I am not saying that posting a Halloween picture of yourself looking like you forgot to get dressed in the morning is the same as robbing a bank, I think in the job search and grad school domain the consequences are the same.

Indeed, a student’s indiscretions don’t even have to be criminal.  With employers looking for reasons to narrow down their applicant pool, profanity, vulgar statements and even slang in a public outlet like an online newspaper or a Twitter post can reflect poorly on a student's character; all of that time spent portraying yourself as a mature professional won’t matter in a world where your online presence suggests the opposite.

As you can probably tell, I am astounded that students are seemingly incapable of exercising discretion, particularly Ivy League students who are competing for hyper-competitive jobs, fellowships and placements in graduate programs. Don’t we already have a hard enough time getting recruiters to talk to us, which is why we spend hours preparing for interviews and fine-tuning our resumes? Is it a lack of judgment or a lack of knowledge?

To me, it’s a combination of both.  Students are ignorant about the realities of the Internet and at the same time they are also careless. It may even be the case that students’ ignorance results in their carelessness. Regardless there are three simple steps that we can take to begin remedying this problem:
  • Students should educate themselves on how information is processed, organized and ascertained in the age of Web 2.0, digital media, and massive information stores.  Facebook and Twitter are not as secure as students think they are.

  • Students should think about three Ws before they say anything in public that can potentially show up online. Who they say something to, where they are saying it, and what they are saying. Indeed, with the advent of smart phones, YouTube and Social Media it is very easy to say something embarrassing in a split second of poor judgment that can haunt you for the rest of your life.

  • College newspapers should have controls in place to filter out oversights by the students they interview.  While newspapers are entitled to report what they learn, a college newspaper should first and foremost look out for the well being of its affiliated institution and that institution’s students.
While these steps are by no means a panacea to the pervasive issue of Internet indiscretion, they are a good starting point.  If students can be more careful about the way they handle themselves online, just as they do in the physical world, they can save themselves from some potential future hardship.