LinkedIn for teens: how young is too young for a personal brand?

LinkedIn is focusing on a younger audience, targeting high school students. A Name Like Shields Can Make You Defensive/Flickr

Despite recording revenue of US$1.5 billion last year, professional social networking site LinkedIn saw its shares take a 7% hit on Friday night, after its growth forecast disappointed the market.

Since LinkedIn announced it was lowering its minimum age requirement for registered users from 18 to as low as 13 in some countries, and to 14 years of age in Australia, the site has continued to grow its membership. In October last year it boasted 30 million student members.

Social media has taken hold with HR professionals, who use it to find and screen candidates. One study of 1000 recruiters found 93% favoured LinkedIn.

I teach my students the importance of building a professional profile, and have previously written about the importance of personal branding. Many are shocked by the reality that 91% of employers use social media to screen prospective candidates, usually at the very beginning of the recruitment process.

First impressions only happen once and are extremely important, so using a profile photo illustrating your “neknomination” effort may impress your mates, but blow any chances of landing your dream job. Never underestimate the size of the network.

The way employers use social media means all employees must be their own potential brand ambassador. But with LinkedIn being open to those in their early teens, does this mean teenagers should also be conscious of building a personal brand? If so, are we pressuring young people into worrying about their future careers much sooner than the generations before them ever had to?

Targeting the lucrative university market

The average age of a LinkedIn user has been reported as 44.2. But LinkedIn says it has reduced the age limit to meet demand from high school students, so that they can take advantage of its University Pages, allowing them to peruse and connect with prospective universities.

Universities already spend large proportions of their marketing dollars trying to engage online with prospective students through their websites and via other social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Only time will tell how effective LinkedIn will be for student recruitment.

LinkedIn has also said that “Smart, ambitious students are already thinking about their futures when they step foot into high school,” and that such students can benefit from being connected to the millions of successful professionals on LinkedIn".

A slippery slope

Where will this end? Studies have shown students from elite private schools dominate university places in Australia and in the US elite private school students have a far better record than those from public schools of gaining a place at Ivy League colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. As a result, competition is fierce to gain a place at “feeder” private schools.

Will demand for prestigious private high school places herald another reduction to the LinkedIn age restriction to encourage even younger students to set up a profile to connect with these educational institutions?

If targeting a younger audience to compete directly with Facebook, LinkedIn has a long way to go with its 259 million users and annual revenue of US$393 million compared with Facebook’s 1.9 billion active monthly users and earnings of US$5.09 billion in the last financial year.

As well as pressuring children to think about their futures too soon, we could also be encouraging them to spend even greater periods online rather than enjoying what is supposed to be a carefree time in their lives.

Privacy matters

Privacy and online safety are also a concern for parents allowing their teenage children to offer up their personal information to LinkedIn. LinkedIn has assured parents of young users that their profiles have different default privacy settings, so that their full names and profile photo will not be visible and their profiles can not be found in a public search. This is to prevent unwanted communication, but what happens if a minor is the person initiating contact with complete strangers within the professional network? What measures are in place to protect them from unscrupulous users hiding behind fake profiles?

LinkedIn offers advice to teens on how to report inappropriate behaviour, and places the onus on parents to teach their teens “some basic internet safety practices”. But in LinkedIn’s section called, “How do I help my child or student stay safe,” it focuses more on teaching teens to “make a good impression,” than providing any substantial safety advice.

LinkedIn can be a useful tool for university students close to graduation. Shutterstock

The silver lining

For university students, however, LinkedIn can be a highly beneficial networking and job-seeking tool, especially in the final years of their degrees.

Relationships formed via social networking are usually based on the concept of “what’s in it for me?” It seems more appropriate for university students to use LinkedIn as a networking tool and a stepping stone into their chosen professional field as they have (or will soon have) relevant knowledge and skills to offer to industry.