The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

TikTok loves Gen Z’s true confessions. Colleges and employers, not so much.

Generation Z grew up online. Their ‘digital footprints’ may haunt them.

A hand holding a phone with footprints on it.
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post; iStock)
6 min

Aly Drake says she used TikTok like a diary. When she felt friendless, she’d make a video about it. When she noticed the symptoms of her bipolar disorder or wondered if an ex was still thinking about her, she’d open the app and press record.

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

But her videos also reached the coaches of the college water ski program she hoped to join. They sent her an email saying her videos were “too negative,” she said. And she was denied a spot on the team.

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

Drake ended up starting her college application process from scratch. She declined to name the program that denied her to protect her reputation as a current college athlete.

Drake and her peers are in a tough spot. Raised on the internet and isolated by the pandemic, their social lives have played out on apps like TikTok. While corporate social media campaigns “raised awareness” around subjects like mental health and body positivity, young people shared their experiences in droves. But as they hit college or the working world, they’re met with a harsh reality: The standard of professionalism among older generations hasn’t changed, and it doesn’t make room for the type of authenticity social media companies tend to encourage.

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

In rejecting Drake’s request for a spot on the team, the coaches noted, according to an email shared by Drake: “If we want to grow in sponsorships and donations, we must prove to the university and to the community that we appreciate their support.”

The number of college admissions officers who visit applicants’ social profiles has steadily dropped the last three years, from about 1 in 3 in 2020 to 1 in 4 now, according to a survey by educational services company Kaplan. Given the challenges of the pandemic, officers likely want to give students the benefit of the doubt, said Isaac Botier, Kaplan’s executive director of college admissions programs. But the majority still indicate candidates’ social media profiles are fair game during admissions.

College preparatory companies still urge students to mind their “digital footprints,” or the trail they leave when posting or commenting online, during the application process, said Robert Franek, editor in chief of the Princeton Review. After all, he said, an authentic social media profile can give an applicant an edge.

“If you and I went to the same high school and got the same grades with the same activities, there are going to be points of differentiation between you and I from an admission perspective,” he said. “Social [media] might lend a lot of light to what that might be.”

It could also be an applicant’s downfall. Franek said he encourages teens to post as if their grandparents are watching.

But of course, on TikTok, their grandparents probably aren’t watching. The app’s user base skews young, and the content brims with references, memes and in-jokes the uninitiated won’t understand. Users weigh in on trending topics or make videos using trending songs or snippets of dialogue.

Sometimes, the app’s design sets up young people to make videos hiring managers or admissions officers won’t like, said Stephanie Rowe, a 19-year-old applied computer science student and TikTok user.

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

“That was so not my intention,” she said. “But this disproportionately affects women and I was just talking about the influence downstream.”

Even on public platforms, young people expect some privacy

Reviewing candidates’ social media profiles can open the door for discrimination, said Michael Zimmer, director of the Center for Data, Ethics, and Society at Marquette University. What’s considered offensive for a teen girl to post, for instance, may look like harmless fun if a teen boy posts it.

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

Even on public platforms, a user’s intended audience is often peers, not suit-and-tie wearing recruiters. It’s up to employers and admissions professionals to understand the context in which something was posted, Zimmer said. That takes empathy and cultural understanding, so the greater risk is that universities and employers hand off the responsibility to AI that scans applicants’ accounts for red flags, he noted. Companies already use AI to screen résumés and conduct video interviews.

A guide to social media safety settings for teens

Instead of projecting a perfect, palatable social media presence, students should make their profiles consistent with the materials they submit to universities, Zimmer said. In other words: If you wrote an essay vowing to end cruelty to animals, don’t post that video where you startle a sleeping cow.

“I would do all kinds of crazy things all the time when I was in college, but it was never recorded,” Zimmer said. “Teens are just noticing there might be longevity to these moments of triviality or fun they’re having on a platform like TikTok.”

Drake, for her part, has stopped making TikToks when she feels lonely or depressed. She avoids alcohol and curse words in her posts and tries to keep her digital footprint in mind, she said.

“I’ve been a little more careful with wording and how I say things,” she said, “but I do still try to remain myself online a little bit.”

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