The social media background check: why your teen needs to be careful now

By Katie Adema.

Grace* is in her early twenties and has just applied for a job. For her first round interview, she was asked to bring a print out of every single one of her social network profiles, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Tumblr. She was also asked to identify any contact with media that she’d had, and any material that she knew of that contributed to her online identity. In addition to this, they also conducted their own searches online for anything she may have omitted.

Before you panic about what your teen might face when it comes time for their first job interview, Grace was applying for a position within the government’s intelligence sector, so this is an extreme example of an employer delving quite deeply into an applicant’s online social life.

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But with ever increasing ways for teenagers to socialise online, even regular employers are gaining more and more access to the online identities of potential employees.

Who checks social media?

Karalyn Brown is the founder of InterviewIQ, a career marketing business for Australian jobseekers. She asked six employers if they check candidates’ social media activity, and half of them said they did.

One employer told Karalyn:
“This is the big mistake of the younger generation. Everything is fair game and they need to learn that if I saw behavior that I felt didn’t fit with the team, or I discovered things about them that reflected negatively on their employer, or there is a pattern of behaviour that’s likely to lead to work performance issues, then they won’t be getting the job. People should assume that I am checking them out.”

“By law, employers are not able to discriminate,” says Karalyn. “But how would you know if you missed out on a job based on something they personally didn’t like?”

Employers look for inappropriate material

Inappropriate facebook sites

Some sites or posts will be obviously inappropriate to future employers; others might not be so obvious.

Employers are mainly searching for inappropriate material. And it may not be immediately obvious to you or your teenager what will be inappropriate to employers.

Jarrod*, 16, knows what he should and shouldn’t do online because he wants to pursue a career in the armed forces.

“I am very wary of what I put up online,” he says. “I’m particularly careful about what pages I ‘like’ because if a potential employer were to look me up on Facebook and see that I like a page dedicated to boobs then they are going to think I’m an idiot.”

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Jarrod also deletes other people’s posts on his wall when they are inappropriate, in case a future employer questions why he didn’t take it down. He untags any potentially compromising photos of himself that friends put up online, and he might also ask the friend to remove photos.

“If a potential employer were to look me up on Facebook and see that I like a page dedicated to boobs then they are going to think I’m an idiot”

“If you’re young and you like to party, someone will probably take a picture of you with your head in the toilet at a pub or club and post it on Facebook at some stage,” says ABC Innovation’s head of technology Craig Preston. “If it were me, I’d take it down. I have asked people in interviews how they feel about certain pictures of themselves or certain comments they’ve made. [It] gives a useful insight into character.”

Employers look for signs of professionalism

Employers aren’t only looking for questionable material; some are looking for indicators of professionalism.

“If a candidate looks interesting or is in the final shortlist, I always Google them,” says Craig. “I look for the completeness of their digital identity as a sign of professional maturity. The younger they are the less complete it will be, but I expect people working in digital media to have a digital identity.”

“If a candidate looks interesting or is in the final shortlist, I always Google them”

Grace says that many of her friends have faced awkward interview questions over content on some of their social media pages.

“People think that it won’t happen to them but you would be surprised,” she says. “I had a friend who applied for a graduate position at a PR agency and during her first round interview she was asked about photos she had on her Facebook page.”

Not all employers will check social media, but be prepared

Not every potential employer will try to check out your teenager’s online profile. Some employers still believe that an interview and gut instinct will tell them everything they need to know.

Liz*, the director of a Sydney childcare centre, has faith in the government checks that are in place for people applying for a job with young children.

Parents need to stay switched on as new social media sites and apps are constantly being launched. Image by webtreats/Flickr

“Anyone wanting to get a job in childcare has to get a Working with Children Check, which I think is enough,” she says. “Also, by going through the interview and orientation process, and calling the person’s references, you will be able to suss them out pretty quickly. Social media sites are personal things. They just aren’t relevant to that person’s professional life. If they are a good worker, they are a good worker.”

The most important thing is to be aware of what each site represents to an employer. ABC’s Craig Preston suggests students consider the following guideline:

“LinkedIn is the professional profile, Twitter is your daily thinking and Facebook is the insight into your personality.”

How to protect your teenager from future social media checks

Not every teenager is like Jarrod, with a strong career dream for a future that he’s already begun working towards. How do you impress upon a teenager that today’s social media fun may come back to bite them in five or ten years’ time, when they can’t think more than four weeks down the track?

RELATED: Do you ‘spy’ on your kids?

Regular checks and reminders are the best way to help protect your teenager from inadvertently sabotaging future opportunities. If you can, make sure that they stick to the following guidelines.

The Kids Are All Right | Don't let social media wreck your career

  • Know the line between appropriate and inappropriate material.
  • Use privacy settings properly and allow access to friends only.
  • Limit the amount of personal information online. Omitting where you live, birth date or family members’ names will make it harder to associate a site or profile with the owner.
  • Think twice before liking, sharing, re-posting or re-tweeting any compromising images, groups, pages, or status updates on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter or any other social networking site that exists today or tom

* Names have been changed.

About the writer

This article was written by The Kids Are All Right intern Katie Adema. Katie is a third year Journalism student at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, NSW, and she hopes to be a writer at a women’s magazine. Read more about our internship program.




  1. what you should have included in this article is that most employers have much more to hide and much worse background and ethic than most employees do – in fact, those with the greatest wealth who own companies are the most morally and financially corrupt with the most decadent habits and lifestyle to be in the position to judge anyone. Where is a place where employees can check out the true backgrounds of the executives, and not the fancy profiles they jazz up on LinkedIn but in places where their worst performance and acts are recorded? Many have been sacked or sent out for theft, fraud, poor performance, sex scandals, bankrupted, and yet still work as executives in other companies or worst in governments? What most authors, journalists, and people in general fail to realise is that the decadent wealthy remain so only because silly people too submissive lazy and conforming fail to ever use their own synapses to think critically.

  2. Well written and very informative. Shall share with my teen 🙂

  3. Very timely advice with many school leavers about. I suppose if you have high privacy levels the prospective employer would not see anything of your Facebook profile. I know many young and old who do not have the higher privacy levels making it easy for scrutiny. With Tumblr many do not use their own names so findng a specific Tumblr could be quite hard. I agree entirely with untagging unflattering photos put up by others. It is what others do that you often have little control over.

  4. This is great information for a project I’m planning to do with a friend of mine. It really is crazy how teenagers just don’t think of the long-term effects of social media interaction.
    Nice work, Katie!

  5. Very true. Employers are always watching. It’s also important for parents to check the digital footprints of their children from time to time.



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