After Years of Telling All, 20-Somethings Start to Clam Up

March 1, 2007 — -- While the weather may not yet reflect it, at college campuses across the country, spring break -- or at least the anticipation of spring break -- is in the air.

And for many young people living in the age of Facebook and MySpace, spring break is a week that's not complete without a camera to capture the fun and games in their tropical, balmy destination of choice.

But spring breakers, here's a thought: Before going online to post those pictures of you and your friends dancing atop a table at Senor Frog's, know that your debauchery will probably pop up on many more screens than you intended. Potential employers, school administrators and admissions officers, and vindictive exes can see them too, and decades from now, when college is a mere memory, those photos will still live on the Web.

A generation of young people has grown up using the Internet as a personal diary. But faced with the reality that photos and information floating in cyberspace could come back to haunt them, many 20-somethings are thinking twice about what they post on the Internet.

From Private Life to Professional Liability

People in the public eye have long been bitten by their Internet alter egos. Last week, 20-year-old "American Idol" contestant Antonella Barba came under fire after alleged topless photos of her surfaced on the Web. In November, Miss Nevada USA lost her crown after pageant officials found half-nude pictures of her on the Internet.

Most 20-somethings don't have a record deal or jeweled tiara at stake, but they do have burgeoning careers, and their Internet personas can come back to burn them in professional situations.

"I know somebody who didn't get hired because they were writing in their blog about what they were doing at all hours of the day and night, being out until four in the morning and then having to struggle to get to work," said Alison Doyle, Skidmore College's associate director of career services. "The employer found it and that was a flag when it came to hiring."

Doyle is one of many career services counselors making students aware of what can happen when they post personal information on the Internet. She finds that often young people don't realize that what they put up on a MySpace or Facebook page can be held against them by an employer.

"They believe that their personal life shouldn't have an impact on what they're doing professionally," Doyle said. "They think that this is me and my friends, it's my private life and it's none of the employer's business."

Digging Up Dirt on Applicants

Rebecca Lammers, a Beloit College senior looking for a job in the music industry, isn't all that worried about potential bosses mining the Internet for dirt on her. Still, she admits that some of her Facebook pictures could give them the wrong impression.

"I have pictures of myself with my sorority and we're drinking and I don't think it would give the best impression to future employers," she said.

Most employers and HR professionals declined to comment on whether they use the Internet to research job and internship candidates. But an analyst at a major financial firm said he makes a habit of looking up college-age applicants on Facebook before interviewing them. By the time they walk through his door, he usually knows all about their social lives, whether they're as dry as their textbooks or alcohol-soaked.

At Georgetown University's law school, a story about a job interviewer questioning a student about pictures from his Facebook profile made some people think twice about their Internet alter egos. According to the widely spread rumor, the employer pulled out printouts of photos from the student's Facebook page and asked him how he intended to represent the law firm in public, considering he posted a picture of himself giving someone the middle finger for the world to see.

"There were a lot of rumors about how it happened -- some say the interviewer made a joke out of it, others say it was a serious, 'What the hell were you thinking,' type of thing," said Georgetown law student Amrutha Nanjappa.

Regardless, she said, "it definitely made me re-evaluate my own profile."

Reputations at Risk

Not scoring a job offer because of a too revealing Facebook or MySpace profile is bad. But the consequences of unintended eyes clicking on personal photos or information can be far worse, as a young woman at a top law school found out when someone posted her Facebook pictures on a law school student's message board.

"There were a bunch of pictures of me that somebody posted from my Facebook page saying 'Check out this girl at this law school,' said the student, who asked that her name and identifying details be withheld.

"They were saying really damaging things about me," she continued. "Men talking about what they'd like to do to me sexually ... Even stupid things how ugly my hair looks when it's curly. They scrutinized me on every level and it's been really damaging for my self-esteem."

The student asserted her pictures were not scandalous or revealing, and that the security settings of her Facebook profile allowed only people she approved as friends to see her pictures.

Desperate to get her photos removed from the forum and the other sites that had posted them, she contacted ReputationDefender, a self-proclaimed PR firm for the average person.

"Our motto is search and destroy," said Michael Fertik, ReputationDefender's founder and CEO. "We go out and find everything about you or your kid on the Internet and if you want us to, we seek to get it removed."

So far, ReputationDefender has removed 50 links associated with the law school student from the Internet. Like her, many of the firm's clients were burned when photographs they posted on social networking sites showed up elsewhere.

"I can't tell you how many clients we have that are on some prominent social networking site," Fertik said. "How many times, routinely, those photographs end up on the Internet along with really salacious commentary with women, obnoxious commentary with men."

A recent graduate of Harvard Law school, Fertik uses copyright law to help initiate litigation against Web sites that refuse to remove a client's content. Fertik doesn't believe in hacking sites or destroying legitimate news articles, but he does maintain that even in cyberspace, people have a right to privacy.

"Whereas we used to say these things about one another in high school and middle school and throw them out at the end of the day on a piece of paper, they're now on the Internet and permanent and public," he said. "It takes two minutes to say someone's got herpes, to say someone's dumb, to say someone's cheating on their exam. The downstream consequences of this are real. It becomes a scarlet letter for the rest of your life."

Whether or not an allegation made about one of his clients is true is beside the point, according to Fertik.

"We have clients who are outed on the Internet. We have clients who are being vindictively attacked by exes. It's not enough to ask is it true, is it real … in many cases it will be true ... but that doesn't mean it has to be one of the main things that people associate with you," he said.

Think Before Tattooing

To prevent their college and postgraduation personas from coming back to bite them in the future, career services counselor Doyle advises students to censor what they put on the Internet.

"If you're not sure about whether something's questionable, ask someone's opinion," she said. "Go to your career services office, go to a professor."

For those still inclined to post anything and everything about themselves, Doyle recommends making social networking profiles accessible only to approved friends.

Fertik suggests 20-somethings give posting personal information on the Web the same consideration they would a major body modification.

"The best way to think of this is as a tattoo," he said. "Would your 30-year-old self want to live with the decisions of your 20-year-old self? Would your 40-year-old self want to live with those decisions?"

But for those who slip and slap up evidence of their spring break or other seasonal debauchery for the world to see, Fertik can offer recourse.

"If you've made your choice and you've now changed your mind, I've got your back," he promised.