I wrote about the first Harvard admissions incident in "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology" (HarperCollins Leadership) and, in light of a current event, decided to post the following excerpt.
It’s imperative to talk to kids about their digital reputations, early and often. Many schools address this by inviting online safety experts to their campus. But often these “experts” either lecture kids or rely on scare tactics that either don’t work or backfire completely.
Kids take to adults talking at them about their digital world like birds take to dogs telling them how to fly.
A better way to help kids understand the importance of maintaining a positive digital reputation is by letting them experience it from a different perspective.
A Lesson on Digital Reputation That Sticks
During our first year of Cyber Civics lessons, I tell my sixth grade students the story of the almost-Harvard students who lost acceptance to this prestigious university because of racist posts in a "private" Facebook group. To help the story sink in, I challenge students to imagine they are college admissions officers. I even let them decide what college they want to pretend to represent. Since we are in California, the ones that come to their minds include Stanford, UCLA, and Cal, some of the hardest in the state, and country, to get into. Next, the students peruse online content I have gathered (all made up, of course) about two fictional applicants and use that information to decide which candidate is most worthy of receiving the full scholarship they are (supposedly) awarding.
They start by reading each student’s (fake) application letter. The candidates—one male
and one female—describe themselves and tell of their high GPAs, excellent test scores, and numerous extracurricular activities. Both claim to be outstanding athletes. Since it’s impossible to decide which one is more deserving based solely upon this self-reporting, students turn to each applicant’s (fake) “digital billboard” to learn more.
Before this activity, students have already learned that a digital billboard is a collection of a person’s online activities—their digital reputation. While often referred to as a digital footprint, we call it a billboard for a couple of reasons. First, as students have pointed out to me, footprints are easily washed away. To them, a billboard seems more permanent. Second, anyone and everyone on the “information superhighway” can see a billboard. It advertises what kind of person you are.
Students quickly discover that the content of each applicant’s digital billboard isn’t so stellar. The male applicant, David, a talented soccer player, posted a picture of himself toilet-papering a neighbor’s house and also posted a YouTube video of the escapade. Ouch. Plus, a newspaper article said he’d allegedly been caught hacking into his school’s computer to access a biology test. Furthermore, a club he said he belonged to posted on its Facebook page that he had been dropped for missing too many meetings.
When the students turn their attention to the female applicant, Kate, a prospective English major in the school’s honor society, they discover her food blog is full of grammatical errors and misspelled words. On her Instagram feed, someone had accused her of using a photo that belonged to someone else. She appears scantily dressed in another social media post, and her name does not appear in the list of honor society members on the school’s website.
My young students, most of whom are just starting to use social media themselves, judge these applicants harshly. Neither, they decide, is worthy of a scholarship.
But Wait, There's More!
After students make their decision, they must go back to take another look at each candidate’s digital trail. Upon closer inspection, they notice that the “Dave” who was accused of hacking was a different person from the “David” who had applied for the scholarship. It is not uncommon for two students at a large school to share a last name, I explain. Besides, had they studied the information I gave them more carefully, they would have noticed that the “Dave” in the article plays lacrosse, not soccer. Plus, I point out, the Facebook post that said he was being dropped from the club’s roster was several months old. Something else they had overlooked.
Students realize they missed some important details about Kate as well. Her school’s website had not been updated in nearly a year, which explains why she did not appear in its honor society list. Oftentimes, this closer inspection leaves my students feeling deflated.
“It’s not fair,” they say. “It’s so easy for mistakes to happen online, even mistakes that aren’t your fault. Plus, sometimes other people post stuff about you that’s not true.” They also say, “Kids joke around online a lot,” and they wonder if adults can t