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Geoff Johnson: Online posts can return to haunt youths seeking jobs, college placement

The message from universities to students caught posting racist or violent sentiments online has been uncompromising: You are no longer welcome
UBC’s advice is that prospective students should ­conduct themselves online with the assumption that any post, even a private one, could be used against them, writes Geoff Johnson. CLAIRE SAVAGE, AP

A recent New York Times story offers cautionary advice to ambitious kids and anxious parents: Be ­careful what you say online, because it never goes away.

The story lists a number of U.S. universities and colleges that have withdrawn placement offers after reviewing a potential student’s online postings.

In this digital age, when social-media posts can ­ricochet across the Internet at a furious speed, the ­message from those universities to students caught posting racist or violent sentiments online has been uncompromising: You are no longer welcome here.

For some students, the offensive social-media posts that cost them their admission were made years ­earlier. No matter, say the admissions officers, we will not accept you here.

Do Canadian universities review applicants’ social-media postings?

Post-secondary institutions in Canada all have their own criteria for admissions. The University of ­British Columbia, for example, doesn’t assess social-media behaviour, and says if an incoming student were to post inappropriate content on a school-administered social-media site, the school would respond on a “case-by-case basis,” and that the school reserves the right to deny admission.

The university’s advice is that prospective students should conduct themselves online with the assumption that any post, even a private one, could be used against them.

Applicants to the university should also keep in mind that offers of admission can always be taken away. “Anything you share has the opportunity to affect your reputation and important decisions in one’s life,” according to a UBC spokesman. “It remains a real wild card in the admissions process.”

But what about job applications? In January, a ­survey was conducted by the Harris Poll, a global ­consulting and market research firm, on behalf of Express Employment. The survey found 65% of ­Canadian companies say they screen a candidate’s social-media presence. Of those, 41% said they have found content on a job candidate’s social media that caused them to not offer them the job.

The same Harris Poll found that some employers start checking a candidate’s social media early in the process, while others wait until the final stage of the hiring process.

What role can parents play in all this?

Dr. Devorah Heitner, an author and speaker, has written two books on parenting and technology that should be required reading for parents of prospective college or university applicants, or even of kids ready to look for that first real job.

The two books are Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.

With social media and constant connection, the boundaries of privacy are stretched thin, says Heitner. Growing Up in Public shows parents how to help tweens and teens navigate boundaries, identity, privacy and reputation in their digital world.

Drawing on extensive work with parents and schools as well as hundreds of interviews with kids, parents, educators, clinicians and scholars, Heitner offers ­strategies for parenting our kids in an always-connected world.

In the real world of 2023, Heitner says, “There’s no opting out of mentoring our kids on technology.”

She advises parents to help kids make thoughtful rather than impulsive decisions about what they share.

Kids should be encouraged to pause before ­posting something sensitive, and to question their own ­motivation for posting anything. If it’s just to ­accumulate “likes,” that’s probably a bad reason.

If a post is deeply personal, Heitner advises, kids should keep it within a trusted group — friends who have demonstrated they can handle others’ personal disclosures. Even then, kids intent on sharing ­intimate stories should be encouraged to tell their trusted friends in person rather than through Instagram.

Posting only less-personal information online can be a prudent way for a teenager to protect him or ­herself from online predatory behaviour, according to Bri Turner, who hosts workshops for children on Internet safety and cyber bullying.

Turner says the Internet is always a risky area to post information. Shady characters, like stalkers, ­hackers, identity thieves as well as other undesirables, can access critical personal information through online posts.

“It is really easy for the Internet to find things on you,” Turner says.

She advises teenagers to never post a real name, address or any other identifying information online. “Never post a picture of you standing in front of your school where it can be easily identified, either,” she adds.

In the largely uncurated world of Facebook, ­Instagram, Snapchat, Forums and Chat Rooms, parents now have a new and challenging job — to remind kids that online postings can stick around for a long time and not to think “it won’t happen to me.”

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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