It’s the heart-stopping moment that young people should dread: you are a few steps into your chosen career when an old, embarrassing picture or a set of ill-thought-out tweets from years gone by surface.
It can happen if you’re in the public eye, like England cricketer Ollie Robinson, 27, who was suspended from all international cricket earlier this year pending the findings of a disciplinary investigation into offensive posts he sent as a teenager in 2012. And like a second unnamed cricketer, who was being investigated over a post he shared while under the age of 16.
This may seem like a clutch of unusual, high-profile examples, but as someone who works with clients to remove negative, defamatory or unwanted content online, I know this problem is increasingly widespread. These posts can be at worst, career-ending, and at best, shaming. My firm, Igniyte, challenges material you feel shouldn’t be on the internet (like pictures or videos posted without your consent), removes old tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts that could be reputation-damaging, and asks Google to remove irrelevant or outdated information from search engine results. The majority of our clients are older than Robinson – directors of companies, politicians, media personalities, people who remember the days before you had to pay attention to your digital footprint – but a rising number are from the generation that came of age online.
These are young people who had a social media account from the age of 12, and who, on entering their 20s and beginning to try to make their way in their chosen career, realise they have a decade of internet use behind them – not all of which they would want a prospective employer to see. This job has made me certain that all young people need to get a handle on their social media history before it’s too late.
A couple of years ago, a student and his parents approached me for help. He’d commented on a tweet from a minor celebrity who had expressed a political point that he disagreed with. The student assumed his tweet would be lost among the many other flippant rebuttals. He was wrong.
The student’s tweet quickly gained almost as much attention as the original post. It was screenshotted, picked up by the tabloids and featured in all the coverage of the story. For the celebrity, this was eminently forgettable. For the 19-year-old with very little digital footprint to speak of, it was a different matter altogether. Suddenly, when you searched his name, the first two pages of results were about this online altercation. He was an ambitious young man studying at a top university and on the brink of applying for graduate jobs: this debacle made him seem unpredictable, even loutish. Was he really like that? No. But if this was all a recruiter was going to find when looking him up online, his parents reasoned they were probably going to move on to the next candidate pretty swiftly. That was where we came in, spending a good two years to get his digital footprint to a cleaner place.
I have seen careers destroyed before they have even begun through poor social media use: people don’t realise that even seemingly innocuous posts or images can paint a negative picture. For instance, your CV might portray you as a vegan feminist who spends their spare time volunteering for animal charities, but what message does it send if your social media accounts feature pictures of you topless, or at a shooting range? There might be nothing wrong with those things, but it could send the wrong signal to a prospective employer, or compromise your integrity when taken out of context. Too many young people let their private lives and opinions play out online, never imagining one day it might cost them. Political leanings, drunken escapades, hot-headed arguments with an ex – they are all things you don’t want an employer to see, that could be traceable.
Recruiters tell me that the first thing they do when considering someone seeking a job is to google them: with a few clicks they can find out if someone is a bit of a "risk" that a big employer should steer clear of. They’re looking to see if this person has expressed extreme views online. Are they all over social media, documenting every bad day at work and every raucous holiday? Is there anything in their digital footprint that could end up causing problems for the company later on? If it’s out there, they’ll find it, and move on.
I have a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old and I counsel them to steer clear of social media. Why? Because I know all too well how easy it is to make a mistake. The trouble with the internet is, you can’t always scrub out.
The unexpected social media pitfalls to watch out for
The message you don’t realise your Twitter account is sending: You rarely ever tweet, and if you do it’s about innocuous things like TV programmes and what you had for dinner. But do your "likes" and the list of people you follow tell a different story? Could someone gather from your Twitter account – whether or not you tweeted about it explicitly – how you voted?
The post a friend tagged you in: You might not have posted an inappropriate picture of yourself, but someone else might have and tagged you in it. You may keep your political views away from your social media presence, but what if a friend tags you in a post which reveals something about your leanings or (perhaps more problematically) implicates you in a viewpoint of theirs that you don’t share?
The teenage blog: The embarrassing blog that housed your teenage musings on life or some of that angsty student poetry may now be deleted. But could someone still find the URL? Search and check.
The posts that contradict the person on your CV: Trying to prove your credentials as someone who is concerned about the environment and trying to live an eco- friendly life? Consider whether your internet presence backs that up. Are there endless pictures of you on foreign holidays? Do you wear a lot of fast fashion or drive a gas-guzzling car? What does your online footprint says about you?
The Daily Telegraph