Do students need a social media safeguard?

Late-night social media posts could have a lasting impact for students.

For college students prone to posting 2 a.m. Facebook status updates detailing the party they just stumbled from, there’s a new web application that might save them from themselves.

Freshmen orientation lessons about how to use popular social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook have become commonplace in higher education, as graduate schools and employers scour the sites for potentially incriminating social media posts—pictures that students wouldn’t want their parents to see and tweets betraying their post-party state of mind on a Friday night.

Now, the makers of a free new application released this month, Social Media Sobriety Test, say they can help college students—and anyone fearful of wayward social media posts—create a firewall between themselves and their mishaps on social networking websites.

The app, made by Colorado-based internet security company Webroot, gave the Sobriety Test a simple slogan: “Protecting you from all possible threats, even yourself.”

The online test lets users choose the social networking websites and hours of protection they want to include, meaning that if a student tried to log on to Facebook during that timeframe—after midnight, for example—he or she would have to pass a series of tests before creating a post, or commenting on a photo.

Watch how the Sobriety Test Works on eCN.TV

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The application’s tests include typing the alphabet backward—much like reciting the alphabet backward for a police officer at a sobriety checkpoint—and keeping the cursor inside a small circle as it moves across the computer screen.

“It’s a fun way to remind people to be more responsible on their various social networks,” said MacLean Guthrie, a Webroot spokeswoman, adding that the Social Media Sobriety Test can be overridden at any time, even if the user can’t remember if “v” comes before or after “w” in the alphabet. “And all you have to do is select the hours that you think you’ll need it most.”

She added: “Today, one drunken online slip-up can remain on the internet forever and cost you more than your pride.”

If failed, the test gives users the option of posting a humbling admission to their Facebook page: “[Person’s name] is too intoxicated to post right now.”

This feature, although optional, has raised concerns among some social media experts in higher education. Jill Wiggins, director of career planning and development at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., said the admittance of failure would be “digital dirt” as damaging as a drunken tweet or Facebook comment.

“That’s pretty much creating the same problem,” Wiggins said of the optional “too drunk to post” status. “If it’s telling people that you’re too intoxicated to make a post, that’s enough for an employer to rule you out.”

National statistics prove what campus officials already know: Students use social networking websites in droves, and many log on to Twitter and Facebook several times a day.

Seventy-two percent of adults ages 18 to 29 use social networking websites, and those with a post-high school education are more likely to maintain online profiles, according to 2009 research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Forty-five percent of adult respondents said they have one social networking profile, and 36 percent have profiles on two sites. Only 16 percent said they have three social profiles.

Drury’s Digital Dirt Self-Audit Form poses a laundry list of questions to college students who might not understand the lasting impact of social media posts. The form asks students to conduct a web search of their name and determine if they’re comfortable with what they found.

The form warns against posting phone numbers, addresses, and schedules to social networking websites, and it asks students if they would be OK with a potential employer perusing their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or MySpace pages.

Wiggins said students’ frustration with having their online profiles investigated by employers has waned in recent years.

“What we first saw was students were mad that we were invading their territory,” she said. “We’re not debating whether it’s ethical if employers do this, because they’re already doing it. … And now, most [college students] have a story they can tell about a person who lost a job because of something inappropriate” posted on a social media site.

Students said the Social Media Sobriety Test could be a handy tool for anyone who makes pit-stops at their Facebook news feed before hitting the sack.

Carlisha Carr, a freshman nursing major at Indiana University, said the application would jibe with campus officials’ message that keeping scandalous photos and incriminating status updates off of social networking websites is important before and after graduation.

“What you put on the internet it always going to be there,” Carr said. “I do not think college students realize the impact of social networks.”

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