- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006


Incoming college students are hearing the usual warnings this summer about the dangers of everything from alcohol to credit-card debt. But many also are getting lectured on a new topic — the risks of Internet postings, particularly on popular social networking sites such as Facebook.

From large public schools such as Western Kentucky to smaller private ones such as Birmingham-Southern and Smith, colleges across the country have revamped their orientation talks to students and parents to include online behavior. Others, Susquehanna University and Washington University in St. Louis among them, have new role-playing skits on the topic that students will watch, after which they will break into smaller groups to discuss.

Facebook, geared toward college students and boasting 7.5 million registered users, is a particular focus. But students also are hearing stories about those who came to regret postings to other online venues, from party photos on sites such as Webshots.com to comments about professors in Web logs.

“The particular focus is the public nature of this,” said Tracy Tyree, Susquehanna’s dean of student life. “That seems to be what surprises students most. They think of it as part of their own little world, not a bigger electronic world.”

The attention colleges are devoting to the topic is testimony to the exploding popularity of online networking on campus.

Northwestern temporarily suspended its women’s soccer program in the spring after hazing photos surfaced online, while athletes at Elon, Catholic, Wake Forest and the University of Iowa were disciplined or investigated. At least one school, Kent State in Ohio, banned athletes from using Facebook.com, and other coaches reportedly have done the same.

Students at numerous schools from North Carolina State to Northern Kentucky have been charged with alcohol violations based on digital photographs. Students at Penn State were punished for rushing the field at a football game. A University of Oklahoma freshman’s joke in Facebook about assassinating President Bush prompted a visit from the Secret Service.

“I think they don’t realize that others have” so much access, said Aaron Laushway, associate dean of students at the University of Virginia, which first incorporated the topic into orientation a year ago.

The real concern, college officials are trying to convince students, is the unintended off-campus audience.

Facebook users need an “.edu” e-mail address and can view complete profiles only of users at their colleges unless identified as a “friend” by the profile’s owner. Therefore most students feel confident they are addressing an audience of peers. Maybe they shouldn’t be so sure.

It’s not hard for prospective employers to get an “.edu” e-mail address from an alumnus or an intern, and recruiters increasingly are trolling the Internet to scope out prospective hires.

“They may be looking at these sites wondering if there’s a personality fit with their company culture,” said Timothy B. Luzader, director of Purdue’s Center for Career Opportunities. A recent survey at Purdue found that a third of employers recruiting there ran job applicants’ names through search engines, and 12 percent said they looked at social networking sites.

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