The following is the first of a two-part series about the impact of social media on the college search process; in this newsletter, we look at the students’ relationship with social media. Keep an eye on your inbox for the second part of the series in our next newsletter, which will address how parents may also be influenced by social media during this time.
For many people, social media and other digital forms of communication have proven to be a saving grace during the past couple years. This technology has allowed people to stay in touch with loved ones and cultivate a sense of community during the loneliest days of the pandemic. However, adolescents should remain aware of the public nature of these apps despite the impression of intimacy they may provide.
Students should be aware of their “digital footprint” especially on platforms like TikTok where the possibility of true anonymity is vanishingly small. As students begin the college application process, their online presence has the potential to impact their chances of getting into a particular school, athletic program, etc. A lot can get lost in translation online, particularly tone and context. What might read as sarcasm to a close friend might come across as sincere to a stranger.
Conversely, more serious content—such as discussing mental health struggles—can be just as off-putting to admissions officers, even though it may feel more sincere or authentic to the person behind the camera. Mental health has become increasingly destigmatized among young people, but older generations and professionals in general may not see eye-to-eye with students on topics that have historically been considered “private.” This can also include information about a student’s personal identity or political beliefs. Parents should encourage their students to remain open about important topics by providing alternative outlets: talking to trusted people one-on-one, going to therapy, joining a club at school, writing in a journal, trying different creative/athletic outlets, etc.
Tell your student to search their own name online and look at what comes up. Are there unused social media accounts that could be deleted, or old photos that could be untagged? Revisit the privacy settings of their accounts, but remind your student that even with locked accounts, screenshots and other information can still be made public so they should continue to be mindful of what they say as well as how they say it.
Students may choose to discuss sensitive subjects in the personal statement portion of their college applications, which is fine. It’s better for admissions officers to hear straight from the student in their own words rather than from a context-less video on social media. This way the student can control their own narrative and maintain a sense of privacy.
Overall it can be hard to resist the trap of online validation for emotions and life events, whether positive or negative. Comparison is a natural urge. However, students should refrain from relying on social media for information about their own likelihood of getting into schools. For example, there is a whole subculture of content on platforms like TikTok and Youtube in which high schoolers record themselves reacting “live” to the responses they’ve received from colleges. Because these apps’ algorithms generally promote videos that garner negative engagement over a positive response, students scrolling through TikTok may be repeatedly exposed to videos of teenagers crying about being rejected from top schools despite their allegedly perfect applications. These videos may cause even more anxiety for students as they submit their own college applications and wait to hear back from their dream school. It’s important to remember that in addition to the promotion of negative content, the algorithm can be deceptive: what appears to be a trend among “many” people might actually not be that common in the grand scheme of things. Additionally, there is no way to know someone’s whole story based on a single video—there could be any number of additional factors that contributed to a college’s final decision that viewers don’t know about, or they could even be staged or entirely falsified for the sake of views.
Of course, social media can be useful to high schoolers as they compile their college lists. It can provide an inside look at different campuses and student experiences, either straight from a school’s social media team or through current students making their own independent content. But apps like TikTok, Youtube, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. should not be the only source of information that high schoolers use in this process.
This is not to say that parents must be hypervigilant about their students’ internet usage; rather, it is important that parents are aware that this culture exists online and it may impact students’ perception of themselves and their own potential in ways that have nothing to do with their school, counselor, immediate peer group, home life, etc.
At SFC, we want families to be able to arrive at their own meaning of success, regardless of other people’s opinions or social media trends. In the end, it’s always a good idea to maintain open, productive dialogue between parents and students. Parents should encourage their students to exercise discretion when posting online and use critical thinking when looking at content shared by other people. Remember that it’s always an option to take a break from particular sites or social media in general if it becomes a source of stress rather than a tool for maintaining connections.