Students: Careless social networking can impact school acceptance, safety

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In today’s plugged in society, the world is literally at your child’s fingertips. As the Internet continues to become an integral part of education, many private school administrators and parents are growing mindful of the risks facing Web-savvy students.

Creating an online profile

Social networking presents several challenges, with a student’s online activity subject to scrutiny at any time. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are public spaces, and while privacy settings are crucial to limiting access, content such as personal information, photographs and conversations can be both visible and permanent. These days, students should be aware that not only do friends and family read their Internet profiles but also institutions considering them as a potential candidate, particularly academic admissions counselors. According to a recent survey by Kaplan, ten percent of 320 schools surveyed admit to turning to social networking sites during the evaluation process, the majority being negatively influenced by what they saw.

“We always remind students and applicants, both to college and to LFA, that anything they write on Facebook, Twitter, email, could and most probably will be seen by someone who will be evaluating them as a potential member of the community,” says Loring Strudwick, Dean of Admissions at Lake Forest Academy.

Photo posting is the most obvious example of the potential pitfalls of social sites. Images can easily be misinterpreted out of context. Questionable behavior, even if it is not directly linked to the student in question, is a red flag to any prospective community reviewing the site. As a rule, your child should only post those images they are comfortable sharing with you.

Today, points out Trinity High School principal Dr. Toni Bouillette, handheld devices allow for an ever-present link to online use.

“Teenagers no longer email, they text and they can access the Internet while they walk down the street. It makes it more difficult for parents to be vigilant,” she adds.

Constant accessibility can often lead careless use of social networking, with students posting messages on the fly. Recently, such behavior has made headlines as a growing outlet for bullying, where inappropriate behavior is displayed in a forum that is anything but private. Students should be sure their personal privacy settings censor the content posted to their pages by others as well.

Awareness through education

Many private schools have built their own online communities, even allowing teachers to post assignments and their own blogs on affiliated Web sites. Along with participation comes an increased effort to educate parents and students on how to better protect their online identities, for their academic futures, college admissions and beyond.

“We want our students to have access to digital tools and that means we allow them to explore the Internet for new and interesting information. We want them to be safe, however, so we begin the year with a formal lesson on critical thinking online,” says Erika Bolte, director of communications and education technology with Brickton Montessori School. “Included in this conversation is a discussion of social networking sites — what is appropriate, what the consequences are, that information posted never really goes away.”

Outside the classroom, parents can assist by becoming aware of their child’s online habits. For younger students, consider keeping the computer in an open space, where activity can be easily monitored and time limits can be set. According to the Department of Justice, when addressing the threat of online predators, children are most at risk during the evening hours. They advise parents to check in on chat conversations and emails, and if possible, to maintain password access to these outlets. For most parents, monitoring at home should be conducted on a discretionary basis.

“I suggest parents periodically ask to see their children’s (social networking) page and ask the child to delete anything that the parent finds questionable,” advises Strudwick.

For Bouillette, this open dialogue starts in the classroom and should be reinforced in the home: “We talk to our students and parents frequently about the importance of ongoing communication and respect for one another. Continuing to build those relationships, I believe, is the best tool parents can use to partner with their children over this issue.”

With teens, parents can build upon these discussions by appealing to their child’s desire for independence and encourage responsibility toward his or her digital identity. Students should view a social networking profile as an extension of their personal resume, carefully selecting and sharing only positive information. Parents might suggest their child focus blog posts on extracurricular activities or a hobby they are passionate about, as a way of enhancing a future application. By taking an active interest in an increasingly important part of their child’s daily life, parents can even grow closer while still teaching them how to protect themselves.

“Talk to students about what they do online and get involved. Allow them to show you the cool things they’re doing online; you might learn something too,” Bolte says of the symbolic importance of empowering students. “We are helping students think about what they are doing before they do it, as opposed to simply cutting them off to protect them. We want our students to be educated digital citizens who are able to problem solve and navigate their changing world.”