Incoming college students are hearing the usual warnings this summer about the dangers of everything from alcohol to credit card debt. But many are also getting lectured on a new topic — the risks of Internet postings, particularly on popular social networking sites such as Facebook.
From large public schools such as Western Kentucky to smaller private ones like Birmingham-Southern and Smith, colleges around the country have revamped their orientation talks to students and parents to include online behavior. Others, Susquehanna University and Washington University in St. Louis among them, have new role-playing skits on the topic that students will watch and then break into smaller groups to discuss.
Facebook, geared toward college students and boasting 7.5 million registered users, is a particular focus. But students are also hearing stories about those who came to regret postings to other online venues, from party photos on sites such as Webshots.com to comments about professors in blogs.
"The particular focus is the public nature of this," said Tracy Tyree, Susquehanna's dean of student life. "That seems to be what surprises students most. They think of it as part of their own little world, not a bigger electronic world."
The attention colleges are devoting to the topic is testimony both to the exploding popularity of online networking on campus, and to the time and energy administrators have spent dealing with the fallout when students post things that become more public than they intended.
Northwestern temporarily suspended its women's soccer program last spring after hazing photos surfaced online, while athletes at Elon College, Catholic University, Wake Forest and the University of Iowa were also disciplined or investigated. At least one school, Kent State in Ohio, banned athletes from using Facebook.com, and other coaches have reportedly done the same.
Non-athletes at numerous schools from North Carolina State to Northern Kentucky have been busted for alcohol violations based on digital photographs. Students at Penn State were punished for rushing the field at a football game. A University of Oklahoma freshman's joke in Facebook about assassinating President Bush prompted a visit from the Secret Service.
"I think they don't realize that others have" so much access, said Aaron Laushway, associate dean of students at the University of Virginia, which first incorporated the topic into orientation a year ago.
Many colleges tell students they won't actively patrol online profiles to look for evidence of wrongdoing — but they are obliged to respond to complaints (at Susquehanna, Tyree says, rival fraternities like to rat each other out by pointing out photos involving alcohol to administrators).
The real concern, they are trying to persuade students, is the unintended off-campus audience.
Facebook users need a ".edu" e-mail address and can view complete profiles only of users at their colleges unless identified as a "friend" by the profile's owner. So most students feel confident they are addressing an audience of peers. Maybe they shouldn't be so sure.
Police are increasingly monitoring the sites. And it's not hard for prospective employers to get a ".edu" e-mail address from an alumnus or an intern, and recruiters are increasingly trolling the Internet to scope out prospective hires.
"They may be looking at these sites wondering if there's a personality fit with their company culture," said Tim Luzader, director of Purdue's center for career opportunities. A recent survey there found that a third of employers recruiting there ran job applicants' names through search engines, and 12 percent said they looked at social networking sites.
News reports of online stalkers warn there are potential personal safety issues, too. Tara Redmon, who oversees the orientation program and transition program at Western Kentucky, said one inspiration for adding the topic this year was talking to a student who had put her dorm address and room number on a posted profile, never considering the risk.
College administrators say they can't — and wouldn't want to — keep students off sites such as Facebook. Many welcome the kind of community-building the sites facilitate, and they recognize they have become an important, and usually harmless, venue for the kind of identity formation and presentation that's an important part of the college experience.
The sites actually help with one of the major goals of orientation: bonding. At Birmingham Southern, dozens of members of the incoming class of about 350 had already formed a Class of 2010 Facebook group long before the start of school.
"That's great," said Renie Moss, the school's dean of students. "That's what should be happening, forming that camaraderie. But we're hoping to just maybe give the students a moment to pause and make sure they put out something they can be proud of."