Youthful Indiscretions Online

Posted: Mar 09, 2007 12:01 AM

WASHINGTON -- It seemed like a good idea at the time.

How often have we all pasted that cartoon balloon over the mental image of a youthful indiscretion? Thank goodness no one had a camera, we might add.

Now everybody has a camera, and youthful indiscretions are captured for all time. And suddenly, we're not so young anymore.

The MySpace-Facebook-dot-com generation has come of age, and some are finding that their silly stunts have come back to haunt them as they enter the grown-up marketplace. Others are finding that their private moments are not so private after all.

Three young women featured anonymously in a recent Washington Post article told horror stories of their attempts to find jobs, only to discover that they may have been disqualified by online postings by virtual strangers. Gossip and graphics included.

One, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate and Yale law student who had gotten articles published in law journals, interviewed at 16 firms for a summer job and received no offers. How could that be?

It turned out that she and others had been discussed in not-so-flattering terms on an online message board, AutoAdmit, which is run by a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and a 23-year-old insurance agent, according to the Post. The board boasts up to 1 million visitors a month, and postings can be anonymous.

And vicious.

Another woman featured in the Post story is a Yale law student and Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude. Not only was she the subject of a derogatory AutoAdmit chat, but photographs of her were posted on a ''hottest'' law school student contest site with graphic discussions of her attributes.

Not everyone hates to be considered ``hot,'' but this woman was afraid to go to the gym because visitors to the site were encouraged to take cell-phone pictures of her. Beware the chatterbox in the shower stall next door. Another young woman felt afraid when online chatter about her led to an anonymous sexual threat.

The tension between free speech and privacy is nothing new, but the debate has become more complicated by the explosion in video portability and networking Web sites. In today's uncivil society, the stakes are high and the rules are low.

Invite anonymity to the mix and hostility finds release in the vacuum created when shame went missing.

Unfortunately for some, employers are now using the Internet to vet job candidates. They, too, can be privy to those just-for-fun college forays, as well as to commentary from those with an ax to grind.

The Post reported research showing that about half of U.S. hiring officials use the Internet to evaluate job applicants and that about one-third had denied employment based on material produced by an Internet search engine. Could it happen to you? Apparently, it could happen to anyone.

Today's college students frequently post their bios with photos on Innocent and inexperienced in the realm of repercussions, they don't hesitate to display their silliest selves, clothed and often not.

The generation that was serenaded by Madonna and marinated in sexual imagery now dwells in a high-tech, freewheeling, sexually explicit environment where porn is the new risque and everybody's gone wild.

Ivy League and other large universities frequently are home to sex magazines featuring students who say posing nude is ``fun'' and a ``badge of honor,'' according to last Sunday's New York Times magazine. What's the big deal? ``A body is a body is a body, and I'm proud of my body, and why not show my body?'' asks Alecia Oleyourryk, co-founder of Boink, a ``user-friendly porn'' magazine produced by students at Boston University.

``It's not going to keep me from having a job.''

Famous last words, perhaps.

It is true that a body is just a body, and everybody has one. But those who've lived awhile know that what we ''knew'' with certainty in our 20s isn't necessarily what we come to know in our 30s, 40s and 50s. When you sexualize and objectify yourself, it's asking a lot that others -- including future bosses -- refrain from doing the same.

Advice to the young: If you can't imagine your mother or father doing something, you probably shouldn't do it either. Your kids may remind you of that someday.