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Protecting Your Teen's Internet Footprint

If you're parenting a high school senior, you know they have a lot on their plate right now. They're busy completing their college applications while maintaining their regular load of school work and activities. But now, a new study shows they have even more to worry about: their online personas.

Just as social media can sink kids' chances of getting into the college of their choice, it can also give them an edge when used properly.

Schools are increasingly discovering information on Facebook and Google that hurts applicants' acceptance chances, according to Kaplan Test Prep's 2012 survey of admissions officers. While the percentage of admissions officers who check Google (27 percent) and Facebook (26 percent) as part of the applicant review process increased only slightly, the percentage who said they discovered something that negatively impacted an applicant's chances of getting into the school nearly tripled from 12 percent last year to 35 percent this year.

Offenses cited included essay plagiarism, vulgarities in blogs, alcohol consumption in photos, things that made them "wonder," and illegal activities.

RELATED: Parenting With Social Media

How can your high schooler manage his online profile to make sure all his hard work and achievements aren't torpedoed by a post, a picture or a tweet?

Have your student Google himself

This is the first step to seeing what sort of digital trail follows your kid. Then, your student will need to "clean up anything" that doesn't put him in a positive light, recommends Jieun Choe, executive director of college admissions and K-12 programs for Kaplan Test Prep. For example, if one of your kid's friends posted a compromising photo of him on a social media site, your child should ask the friend to take it down.

Control the privacy settings on Facebook. Choe suggests that students get familiar with Facebook's privacy settings because kids have more control over their information than they may think. For example, kids can choose who sees their status updates and pictures—whether it's everyone, friends, or certain people—by clicking on the sharing icon each time they post. (However, they should also know that if they tag someone in a post, that person's friends can also see the content. They also have no control over friends who share or copy their information.) It's also a good idea for kids to regularly review their privacy settings, she adds, because Facebook is constantly updating, and this way they can make sure they have the most comprehensive controls in place.

Get a handle on tags. Facebook's default settings allow friends to tag you in their photos, status updates and check-ins, which can all be public without your knowledge, says Choe. To avoid this, have your child click the account menu at the top right of any Facebook page and choose Privacy Settings. She can then go to "Timeline and Tagging" and change the setting so only her friends can see posts she's been tagged in. Your kid can also choose to review any tags before they appear on her timeline.

RELATED: A Parent's Guide to Social Media

Remove past posts from public viewing. If your child is worried that a Facebook photo or post from the past could harm his reputation, have him go to "Limit The Audience for Past Posts" under Privacy Settings, recommends Choe. Next, click on "Manage Past Post Visibility." Once there, he can change it so all of his past content that was public is now only viewable by friends.

Protect tweets. If your child is on Twitter, anyone can view her tweets and follow her. But your child can protect her privacy by going to Settings, then Accounts, and checking "Protect my tweets," advises Choe. That way, only people she approves will see her tweets. Still advise her to be careful, though—people can always copy and paste her tweets and "retweet" them.

Remember the "Would you wear it on a T-shirt?" rule. Despite privacy settings, you can never guarantee that online information won't be seen, according to April Elizabeth Bell (no relation to the author), the director of counselor advocacy for the College Board. Your kid, therefore, shouldn't post anything he wouldn't feel comfortable having emblazoned on a T-shirt, she advises. She says students should take special care to avoid any online profanity or phrases that could be construed as racist or bullying. "If you're cautious about what you post, you won't have to worry about any negative implications."

Capitalize on social media. Encourage your child to utilize his own social media page with videos, photographs, and content that showcase her talents and strengths, advises Bell. If your child is a writer, she can post her poems; if she is an athlete, she can post photos of her latest cross country meet or volleyball game. Just as social media can sink kids' chances of getting into the college of their choice, it can also give them an edge when used properly.

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