Universities look at TikTok profiles and other “digital footprints”.

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Aly Drake says she used TikTok like a diary. Whenever she felt friendless, she made a video about it. If she noticed the symptoms of her bipolar disorder or wondered if her ex was still thinking about her, she opened the app and hit record.

It helped that she was “obsessed” with understanding the app’s algorithm and what content was working well, the 19-year-old said. On TikTok, her videos reached people who understood her and understood what she was going through, she said.

But her videos also reached the instructors at the college waterskiing program, which she wanted to attend. They emailed her saying their videos were “too negative,” she said. And she was denied a place on the team.

“I was just talking about how I feel. It’s supposed to be a good thing to do,” said Drake, who has 4,000 TikTok followers. “It was quite shocking to see the consequences of the way you post.”

Drake started her college application process from scratch. She declined to name the program, which refused to protect her reputation as a current collegiate athlete.

Drake and her colleagues find themselves in a difficult position. Raised on the internet and isolated by the pandemic, her social life revolves around apps like TikTok. As corporate social media campaigns raised awareness of issues such as mental health and body positivity, young people flocked to share their experiences. But when they enter college or the workforce, they face a harsh reality: The standard of professionalism of older generations hasn’t changed, making no room for the kind of authenticity that social media companies tend to foster.

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Online creators are de facto therapists to millions. It’s complicated.

In declining Drake’s request for a spot on the team, the coaches noted, according to an email shared by Drake, “If we’re going to grow with sponsorships and donations, we need to show the university and community that we appreciate their support. ”

According to a survey by education services company Kaplan, the number of college admissions officers visiting applicants’ social profiles has declined steadily over the past three years, from about 1 in 3 in 2020 to 1 in 4 now. Given the challenges of the pandemic, officials likely want to give students the benefit of the doubt, said Isaac Botier, Kaplan’s executive director of college admission programs. However, the majority still state that candidates’ social media profiles are fair game during admissions.

College prep companies still urge students to be mindful of their “digital footprints,” or the trail they leave when they post or comment online, during the application process, said Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of the Princeton Review. After all, an authentic social media profile can give an applicant an advantage.

“If you and I went to the same high school and got the same grades with the same activities, there will be differences between you and me from an admissions perspective,” he said. “Social [media] could shed a lot of light on what that might be.”

It could also be the demise of an applicant. Franek said he encourages teens to post like their grandparents are watching.

But of course, their grandparents probably aren’t watching on TikTok. The app’s user base is young, and the content abounds with references, memes, and jokes that the uninitiated will not understand. Users comment on trending topics or create videos with trending songs or snippets of dialogue.

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Sometimes the app’s design gets young people making videos that hiring managers or admissions officers don’t like, said Stephanie Rowe, a 19-year-old computer science student and TikTok user.

When Rowe saw what appeared to be underage girls posting videos of themselves in underwear in response to a trending sound, she made a video urging other users to think about their digital footprints. It exploded and received more than 19 million views, the app reveals. The reaction was mixed, Rowe said. Some people chimed in on the importance (and scare) of digital footprints. Others accused her of slut-shaming, and that criticism hurt, she said.

“It wasn’t my intention,” she said. “But that affects women disproportionately, and I was just talking about the downstream impact.”

Young people also expect a certain degree of privacy on public platforms

Reviewing candidates’ social media profiles can open the door to discrimination, said Michael Zimmer, director of the Center for Data, Ethics, and Society at Marquette University. For example, what might be considered offensive to a teenage girl may seem like harmless fun when a teenage boy posts it.

But social media checks also help prevent discrimination on campus — Marquette rescinded a student’s offer of admission in 2020 over a racist social media post about the murder of George Floyd.

Even on public platforms, a user’s intended audience is often colleagues rather than suit-and-tie recruiters. It’s up to employers and admissions professionals to understand the context in which something was posted, Zimmer said. That requires empathy and cultural understanding, so the greater risk is that universities and employers will hand off responsibility to AI, which scans applicants’ accounts for red flags, he noted. Companies are already using AI to screen resumes and conduct video interviews.

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A guide to social media safety settings for teens

Rather than projecting a perfect, tasteful social media presence, students should align their profiles with the materials they submit to colleges, Zimmer said. In other words, if you wrote an essay vowing to end animal cruelty, don’t post the video of you scaring a sleeping cow.

“When I was in college, I did all kinds of crazy things all the time, but it never caught on,” Zimmer said. “Teens are realizing that those moments of triviality or fun they have on a platform like TikTok could last.”

For her part, Drake has stopped doing TikToks whenever she’s feeling lonely or depressed. She avoids alcohol and swear words in her posts and tries to keep an eye on her digital footprint, she said.

“I’m a little more careful with wording and how I say things,” she said, “but I’m still trying to be a little bit myself.”