Your future boss knows what you did this summer: it’s online

50 wpm, punctual, fast learner. Especially after a few Jager Bombs. upsuportsmouth

Just over a fortnight ago, LinkedIn announced it is to make its professional network available to UK-based students aged 13 years and older; primarily as a way of enabling young people to leverage the insights and connections of the millions of successful professionals on the site.

Despite criticism that this may prematurely expose young people to “the harsh realities of advanced capitalism” and “pressure them into making decisions based on what others want, rather than what excites them”, the strategy LinkedIn has adopted should be applauded. When it comes to online networks, be they social or professional, it’s never too early to start thinking about your professional image.

YOHLO (You only have to learn once)

If you happen to be one of the thousands of this year’s cohort of freshmen-in-waiting, please indulge me in making your pain-staking wait just that little bit more excruciating.

The first weeks of university may turn out to be the most socially intensive, exhilarating and downright exhausting period of your life. One thing is almost guaranteed: while your Facebook friendships will inevitably rocket in number and your tweets will crackle with excitable hashtagging about mysterious freshers’ fair goodies, corridor parties and enigmatic course mates, the relatively mundane world of career planning and full-time employment will seem a lifetime away.

So, what you may not want to hear is that there has never been a better day than today to start thinking about what last night’s throw-away tweets could say about “professional you” of the future. Seeing as we already find ourselves gathered around the campfire, let me share with you the cautionary tale of young Paris Brown.

Ms Brown, a mere 17 years old, was about to move into the inaugural role of Britain’s Youth Police Crime Commissioner when it was reported that she had posted various tweets that were deemed unbecoming of her newfound civic responsibilities. An important point to be emphasised here is that Ms Brown’s tweets were shared when she was between the ages of 14 and 16 - presumably some time prior to her being appointed to her role – yet her public shaming was as merciless as it will no doubt prove to be permanent.

As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger remarks in his excellent book, Delete:

As much of what we say and do is stored and accessible through digital memory, our words and deeds may be judged not only by our present peers, but also by all our future ones.

If you’re still in any doubt as to the consequences of violating expectations of professionally appropriate behaviour upon social media, try the following test: search for Ms Brown’s current presence on social media. Like others before her, she has become a digital persona non grata; conspicuously absent from a world that almost certainly most of her peers still inhabit.

Much ado about nothing?

If it still seems unlikely that you should have any need to consider future employers when sharing your fresher exploits with friends on social media, then you may not be alone. A recent large-scale survey of more than 20,000 international respondents indicated that more than 70% of 16 to 34 year olds in the UK were not concerned about how their current use of social media could harm their future career prospects.

Indeed, as part of my own PhD research on digital reputation management behaviour, I surveyed 257 UK-based college, undergraduate and postgraduate students and found that college and first year undergraduates only infrequently considered the potential career-related implications of their social media use; particularly in comparison to fellow undergraduates entering the final year of their studies. What’s more, only one-fifth of all respondents reported having a LinkedIn profile; a figure suggesting that the core challenge facing the professional networking site may not be coercing young people to grow up too fast, but attracting a younger user base in the first place.

So, an understandable question at this point might be “if hardly any of my peers care about their online professional image, why should I?” The answer to this is deceptively simple: the organisations that you may eventually seek employment with do care. In a JobVite survey of 1,600 recruiting and human resources professionals published just last week, 93% of the sample reported looking at a candidate’s social profile to inform judgments about their suitability. And if you find yourself out of contention for a position, don’t necessarily expect to be informed if it was due to damaging aspects of your digital footprint.

The enduring candidates dinner

Job candidates at assessment dinners are advised to remember that despite the outwardly social context of the event, they are still subject to the scrutiny of their hosts and, likewise, students should think carefully and proactively about what content they are willing to disclose on social media. Such advice is not intended to generate fear and anxiety or to dampen enthusiasm for what is a memorable induction into the privilege of student life, but to simply encourage taking responsibility for one’s present day digital actions in order to avoid “complications” in the future.

While the difficulty of fully deleting content once published means that prevention is almost always preferable to cure when interacting with social media, a number of free reputation management sites already exist in helping you to identify potentially problematic content, review potential threats to privacy, ensure that positive links show up towards the top of Google searches and of course, share your accomplishments with other professionals. In short, there is no need to enjoy or savour your time as an undergraduate any less than us digital curmudgeons hurtling towards (or beyond) our 30s, who were still fumbling about with how to link Jeff Buckley songs to our MySpace profiles as we handed in our dissertations.

Encouraging the consideration of online professional image doesn’t have to mean trampling on the joys of youth. It can mean supporting young people to make the transition from early adopters of social media to responsible denizens of a digital society that is, paradoxically, both native and yet punishingly unfamiliar all at once.