Redirecting Parental Concern over Teen Social Media Use and College

By on 04-01-2014

In this guest post by Alan Katzman, parents are encouraged to redirect their concerns over teen social media use by asking not what their teens are doing online but rather what they are not doing online.

Many articles have been written warning about social media’s growing impact on college admission and scholarship grant decisions. Citing stereotypical adolescent social media use, these articles share a predilection towards negative outcomes. The prevailing advice generally favors taking social media off the table by locking it down and going into hiding during the college application process. This perspective and the prevailing analysis are dated, misplaced and inevitably lead to outcomes diametrically opposed to the initial purpose.

College admissions officers have neither the time nor the interest to search social media simply to find reasons to reject qualified applicants. At best, temporarily shutting down a social media profile or using a fictitious name during the college application process will only raise suspicions when that applicant cannot be found. If and when colleges look, logic dictates they look because they want to learn more about the applicant, opening the door of opportunity for the applicant to standout from other qualified applicants.

Moreover, college interactions with applicant’ social media are no longer a one way street. Admissions officers and other members of the college community have become passive recipients of applicant social media courtesy of everyday social interactions. These social interactions may take the form of an applicant friending or following a college on Facebook, tweeting a request for information to the admissions office, requesting to connect with a college official on LinkedIn, posting a comment to a school’s Instagram or YouTube account, or simply by using a hashtag that is tracked by a college admissions office. As a result, college administrators are routinely receiving full access to applicant digital DNA by way of these social media communications. Again, opportunity presents itself.

While housekeeping remains an essential preliminary task for social media readiness, the unfortunate reality is that once posted, social media activities are permanent and discoverable. Shares, tags, screenshots and reposts make deleting one’s own prior activities something of a crapshoot. Nevertheless, some degree of care should be taken to mitigate the chances that your teen’s social media postings contain any compromising posts before commencing online interactions with colleges.

Parents should look beyond their concern over typical teenage party photos and focus their attention on activities that might reflect aggressive, violent or antisocial behaviors and tendencies. These are the posts that pose the greatest threat to the college community and therefore to the applicant as well. General posts of teenagers having fun will likely be tolerated by most college officials but it is always important to know your audience. For example, Brigham Young University will certainly have different tolerance levels than New York University and a student applying for pre-law will be subject to different standards than a student applying for performing arts.

Rather than dwelling on the potential negatives, parents should work with their teen to unlock the positive powers of social media by helping them build a well-rounded, robust and easy to find online presence reflecting an accurate depiction of their talents, activities and accomplishments. What surprises many teens is discovering how far removed their existing social media persona is from the person they are and how they would want others to perceive them so they should be open and receptive to these suggestions. Not only will these efforts benefit your teen when seen by college officials but they will also negate the impact of any pre-existing adolescent activities.

Teens tend to use Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr for their friend to friend social media activities, so parents can suggest using other social media platforms to build out their enhanced presence so as to not interfere with their teen’s closely guarded social activities.

Here are three simple examples:

LinkedIn: Last year, LinkedIn lowered its minimum profile age to 13 years while also introducing their University Pages. University Pages offer teens a way to engage with current students, alumni, faculty and staff of the colleges they are interested in attending. Once you have helped your teen complete their LinkedIn profile, they can select the colleges they would like to follow. This way they can keep track of conversations and issues relating to that institution and, in time, learn how to engage in conversations by commenting on discussions or connecting with people affiliated with that college. Having a LinkedIn presence is also helpful for increasing the chances of being found by colleges and other recruiters.

Google+: A pre-condition to Google+ is having a Gmail account. This requirement presents the perfect opportunity for your teen to obtain a proper Gmail address for responsible future correspondence. Work with your teen to generate an email address that is as close to his/her name as possible (if the name is already taken then try adding a geographical suffix such as or some other descriptive derivative). Once the Gmail address is secured, click on the G+ icon within Gmail and complete the Google+ “About” profile page. The Google+ “About” page template is very easy to use and provides your teen with the opportunity to tell their story in their own words. It also provides a place to add links to all of your teen’s other social media profiles, personal websites and blogs.

Twitter: Yes Twitter. Most teens approach Twitter solely as a site to interact with their friends - 140 characters at a time. This usage is all wrong. Both parent and teen can learn together that Twitter is an extremely powerful networking tool that builds influence and awareness over time. Have your teen start fresh by coming up with a Twitter handle that incorporates their name or some recognizable derivative thereof and write a serious profile description. Search for people who share your teen’s interests or who are experts in their field of interest. Regularly review postings and help your teen retweet and add comments as appropriate.

What each of these three social platforms have in common and what sets them apart from other major social media platforms used by teens is that they are not built on existing friendships. These platforms provide a means to find and be found by people you don’t currently know but who share common interests. Whether it’s participating in group discussions on LinkedIn, finding a Community to join on Google+ or following the tweets and engaging with a fresh group of liked minded people on Twitter, these platforms provide a positive environment for exchanging ideas and creating one’s discoverable personal brand. Over time, your teen can build a following and a presence based on the merit of his or her contributions. Most importantly, these platforms tend to rank very favorably and high on Google Search increasing the chances that this will be the information that colleges will see. Also, when building out their presence, teens should be encouraged to not be shy or humble about posting and linking their accomplishments as college admission standards remain ultra-competitive.

These platform examples are not intended to be exclusive by any means. Creative types may be drawn to Pinterest. Facebook contains many underutilized options to segregate personal from professional content while Instagram, YouTube and personal blogs can also play an important role in nurturing a positive and visible online presence.

Today, the ability to proactively manage social media to accurately reflect your persona, skills and attributes is becoming an important life skill. Parents who take the time to work with their teens to teach them this powerful yet all too often unrealized side of social media will be doing them a great service.

Alan Katzman is the founder and managing member of Social Assurity LLC, delivering personalized social media management services focusing on maximizing social media profiles to effectively stand out when colleges and employers take a look.