Social networking sites not always an intern's 'friend'

The father of a prospective college student recently asked me what kind of changes I was seeing in internships lately. Without hesitation, I had to say that social media related-opportunities were by far the fastest-growing area in which employers were seeking help. But even as social media sites provide internship opportunities, they also create pitfalls for potential interns in all industries.

Given the explosion of social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and the use of social media as a marketing tool, their demand for interns is no surprise. Employers want interns to blog about their firms, promoting and boosting their virtual image.

But would be interns of all kinds would do well to remember that with a few keystrokes, anyone – including a potential employer or internship supervisor -- can learn more about them than comfort might allow. For all of its benefits, cyberspace is a virtual Pandora's Box. Advertisers, credit card companies and casual snoopers are privy to information on a nearly unmitigated scale. Big Brother is not only watching, but might be able to gain virtual access to your address, Social Security number and checking account.What does this mean to the prospective intern? Potentially everything, some say.

Ted Williams helped found, a web site that rates various internship sites. When asked if employers check up on potential interns' Facebook (or other social networking) accounts, he had this to say: "Absolutely. It obviously varies from company to company, but it's common for companies to 'Google' candidates and view their social network profiles. It's rarely part of the formal evaluation process, but it's done often."

Many employers want a glimpse of the interns they are bringing into the fold.

There are exceptions. Dori Babcock, human resource director for Moosejaw Mountaineering -- which recently earned kudos as a Top 10 company on – says her employer doesn't scrutinize candidates' networking accounts. "Not typically, unless a student is applying for our social media marketing internship, which focuses on Moosejaw's social media efforts through Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr and our blog. In that case, we're really just checking to see if students are active and engaged in these social media outlets."

It's long been common practice for companies to do background and credit checks on prospective employees. But prior to the Internet, these procedures were cumbersome, time consuming, prone to error, and, most importantly, costly. Now, search engines can point the way to the weatlh of personal information that people post to the web through their social networking activities.Even if you're only applying for an internship, and perhaps an unpaid one at that, what you post online -- photos of that especially wild pool party, perhaps -- could ruin your chances Indeed, Facebook, under pressure from privacy advocates, has announced new tools to help its 500 million users do a better job or protecting their privacy.

How does an intern protect oneself? Williams put it best: "Be smart. Employers are reasonable people. It's okay to have a beer in a picture or have pictures of some fun/crazy event. Recruiters went to college too. That said, always err on the safe side. The internship space is highly competitive and the last thing a student wants to do is give an employer a reason to say 'no'."

One last thing to remember, if your parents and teachers haven't already beaten this into your head: Once you post a piece of information in the seemingly-infinite realm of cyberspace, it's out there forever.

Somewhere, George Orwell is laughing and saying: I told you so.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her column runs every Wednesday; send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at
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