It's the heart-stopping moment that more young people should dread: you are a few steps into your chosen career when an old, brutally embarrassing picture or a collection 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 this week pending the findings of a disciplinary investigation into offensive posts he sent as a teenager in 2012. Or the second unnamed cricketer who was yesterday being investigated over a post he shared while under 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 just how increasingly common this problem is.
These posts can be career-ending at worst, shaming at best. 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tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts that could be seen as reputation-damaging, and asks Google to remove irrelevant or outdated information from search engine results.
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The majority of our clients are older than Robinson – invariably, they are 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, suddenly 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 someone in the public eye – a minor celebrity who was a regular feature on all the tabloids' websites – expressing a political point that he disagreed with. He posted underneath with little thought, assuming his tweet would be lost among the many flippant 280-character rebuttals. Unfortunately, his calculation was wrong.
His 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 simply a matter of a week's news cycle; eminently forgettable, soon to be replaced in the Google rankings with something new. 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 (funded by his parents) to get his digital footprint to a cleaner place. Oddly, if he had been in the public eye, it would have been simpler – another story would have come along to replace it.
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 just with the right Google search.
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.