Campus Climate Surveys: A finger on the pulse and the purse strings of higher education

biden not alone

July’s release of findings from Senator Claire McCaskill’s (D-MO) survey of over four
hundred institutions of higher education highlighted a range of shortcomings in efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault on our nation’s campuses. While most would agree that the heightened federal focus on addressing campus sexual assault is a good thing, very few institutions have an accurate sense of the magnitude of sexual assault on their campus.

According to McCaskill’s survey results, only 16% of campus respondents conduct confidential student surveys to assess the prevalence of sexual violence, attitudes related to this issue, and how it is being addressed at their school. These “climate surveys” were a key recommendation in April’s release of the “Not Alone” report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The Campus Safety and Accountability Act, a bipartisan bill introduced on July 30, would make climate surveys an annual requirement.

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This momentum has led to public statements decrying climate surveys as yet another unfunded mandate for campuses. Indeed, those likely to be responsible for enacting such a mandate on campuses are already facing increased pressure on their (often inadequate) resources to comply with more stringent standards around reporting offenses, responding to incidences, and prevention education. While funding and staffing are valid concerns, there may be additional, and often unspoken, resistance among many higher education leaders around facing the fact that they, too, may have a sexual assault problem.

The reluctance of campus authorities to recognize and outwardly take on sexual assault at their school is not new. Most notably, the cover up of the rape and murder of a Lehigh University student in 1986 prompted the passage of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, a landmark legislation that clearly outlines and enforces campuses’ crime reporting responsibilities (and now contains the mandates of what is commonly referred to as Campus SaVE). More recently, a 2014 survey by Gallup and Inside Higher Education found that ~70% of college presidents generally feel campuses need to do more to respond to sexual assault. The vast majority of these same presidents (roughly 95%), when asked about their own institution’s efforts, felt their campus was doing enough.

Clearly there is incentive in not being branded as a school with “a sexual assault problem.”  However, the problem of sexual assault is not unique to schools bearing the scarlet letter of a Title IX investigation. The public release of the list of 55 schools (now over 60) currently under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, while certainly elevating the dialogue around this issue, may also have the unintended consequence of marginalizing the problem and propagating the misperception that sexual assault is a case of a few bad apples.

Beyond the tragic personal narratives of victimization (and often revictimization upon reporting) prolific in local and national media, the high rates of sexual assault among college students have been demonstrated empirically since the 1980s. However, administrators and practitioners often do not have a solid handle on their campus-specific incidence of sexual assault, or trend data relating to this challenge. Relying on Clery report data is insufficient and misleading, as reports can fluctuate with the extent to which authorities abide by reporting guidelines, or the degree to which students feel comfortable coming forward to campus authorities about their assault in any given year. In the absence of campus data that come anywhere close to commonly cited statistics, the door is open for some campus leaders to keep their fingers pointing outward and their heads buried in the sand.

This brings us back to climate surveys. If mandated broadly, climate surveys can reduce barriers to transparency by leveling the playing field across institutions – it would likely be found that sexual assault is shockingly prevalent on most, if not all, campuses. This would allow campuses to distinguish themselves not just by avoiding “the list” but by the efforts they make to proactively take a stand against sexual assault.

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Insights gleaned by a deeper understanding of students’ and employees’ attitudes, behaviors, and experiences (both the good and the bad) could be leveraged to garner additional resources. Further, these campus-specific insights could inform a more accurately targeted—and thus more cost-effective—allocation of resources. At the end of the day, campuses would be delivering more appropriate and impactful programs and services to their students and employees. Not to mention the universal benefits that could be realized by a more data-driven community of practice.

If campus safety and student wellness are truly viewed as key priorities, the merits of climate surveys will likely far outweigh the costs. While there may be fiscal and logistical challenges, the conversation should remain focused on appropriations rather than appropriateness.

To learn more about EverFi’s new climate survey tool, please contact speck@everfi.com.

Reference URLs:
1. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/07/10/mccaskill-says-her-survey-shows-colleges-falling-short-dealing-sex-assaults#sthash.28eMrOOl.Bd7EXAOG.dpbs
2. http://www.mccaskill.senate.gov/SurveyReportwithAppendix.pdf
3. https://www.notalone.gov/assets/report.pdf
4. http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/files/2014/07/Campus-Safety-and-Accountability-Act4.pdf
5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/29/campus-climate-surveys-sexual-assault_n_5235457.html
6.  http://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/files/2014%20Presidents%20Survey%20webinar%20[Read-Only].pdf
7.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/30/activists-rape-problem-ultraviolet-harvard-dartmouth_n_5242076.html
8. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/01/department-of-education-office-for-civil-rights-title-ix-sexual-assaults/8567941/

EverFi Attends White House Event: Protecting Students from Sexual Assault

The higher education airways are abuzz with activity resulting from this week’s release of recommendations from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (WHTF). The Task Force, commissioned in January by President Obama, has connected with thousands of key stakeholders to gather insights on the challenges and opportunities facing campuses in an effort to provide practical instructions for colleges to identify, prevent, and respond to sexual assault.

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Vice President Joe Biden with survivor, Madeline Smith, a student at Harvard University, who shared her story at the White House Event on April 29th, 2014

Over the past few months, EverFi, along with Campus SaVE Act rule-makers and proponents, has engaged with the Task Force to help provide a framework of best practices and sexual assault prevention standards.  We were honored to join Vice President Biden, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Lynn Rosenthal, the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, at the White House yesterday to champion their efforts.

During his impassioned plea for men to get more involved in the fight against sexual assault, the Vice President shared the “1 is 2 Many” public service announcement.  The spot features Hollywood actors Benicio del Toro, Daniel Craig, Steve Carell, Seth Myers and Dulé Hill joining President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden to encourage men to be an active part of ending sexual assault. 

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Male celebs help White House stop sexual assault

Key Resources:

In our effort to support campuses, we’ve pulled together many of the key documents and materials that have been released in the past month as the result of the White House Task Force and VAWA rule-making:

  • 1 is 2 Many PSA – White House public service announcement urging men to get involved in the fight against sexual assault

 

  • Not Alone – The first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

 

  • NotAlone.gov – a new web resource launched in connection with the White House Task Force

 

 

 

  • Bystander Intervention Fact Sheet – a review of the core components, delivery methods, and challenges of this important aspect of prevention (including reference to EverFi’s Haven program

 

 

 

 

 

  • Sample Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for partnerships with local rape crisis centers – these vital community-based organizations can provide critical assistance and support for victim services and prevention

 

 

 

  • Title IX FAQs – questions and answers on Title IX and sexual violence, released by the Department of Education to provide additional guidance to schools concerning their obligations under this legislation

 

A Positive Path Forward in Sexual Assault Prevention

With the passage of the Campus SaVE Act in 2013, and the recent establishment of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, the issue of sexual assault is gaining much-deserved national attention. EverFi’s online sexual assault prevention course, Haven, addresses the critical issues of sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking, and reaches over 400,000 students a year. Our online solution sets students on a positive path forward and helps colleges and universities meet the federal mandates of the Campus SaVE Act.

Our Haven research has shown that most students have healthy behaviors and attitudes when it comes to sexual assault, and prevention education helps strengthen and reinforce those beliefs.  Throughout the Haven course, students are engaged and empowered to help build the communities they want to live in, and to help maintain a positive path forward for their campus.

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Haven – Understanding Sexual Assault™ Infographic

New Campus SaVE Act Resource

Today marks the one year anniversary of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  For the past 20 years, this critical legislation has helped to improve the safety and wellness of women by provisioning services and trainings, funding investigations and prosecutions, and appropriating grants for vital community-based programs.

In response to the groundswell of attention and activism around campus sexual assault, the 2013 VAWA reauthorization includes a set of Clery Act amendments commonly referred to as the Campus SaVE Act. Campus SaVE expands the scope of the Clery Act, creating new requirements in terms of crime reporting, response, and prevention education for rape, acquaintance rape, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

EverFi has recently launched a new resource on the Campus SaVE Act that shares information and best practices for higher education administrators and practitioners focused on campus sexual assault prevention.  The website offers Campus SaVE Act FAQ’s, information on the White House Task Force, webinars, insight reports, and solution overviews.  It also provides information on how many campuses are addressing federal compliance mandates like the Clery/Campus SaVE Act and Title IX through the implementation of Haven, EverFi’s sexual assault prevention course.

While the Campus SaVE Act goes into effect today, additional guidance will be offered by the Department of Education’s negotiated rulemaking committee throughout the year and campuses are required to show a good faith effort for compliance on their 2014 Annual Security Reports.

The Campus SaVE Act site aims to address all of your Campus SaVE-related questions and offers our support to higher education administrators as they refine sexual assault prevention programming on campus and work to reflect a good faith effort for compliance with these new Clery mandates.

We continue to be focused on continuing to spark change on campuses across the country to create healthier, safer communities.

A Parent’s Take on the Campus SaVE Act

Do you know what the Campus SaVE Act is?  Do you know what the acronym stands for?  I can honestly say that even as a parent I might not know were it not for my role at an education technology company. We provide online prevention courses around critical issues including sexual assault prevention.

nn_05bwi_assault_140122Last March, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act, which included the Campus SaVE Act – new legislation that holds schools accountable for their handling of sexual assault on campus.  I have good reason to be interested in the Campus SaVE Act, two reasons in fact: my 16 and 21-year-old daughters.

My wife and I have taught our girls about the risk of sexual assault, we have taught them how to reduce the risk, and how to defend themselves against potential perpetrators.  I have watched my 16-year-old exhibit a pleasantly surprising amount of fierceness and ability in a self-defense class, and yet I worry.

I worry that even with this education, no matter how well informed, prepared, or trained they may be, there are still other factors in play that are out of their control.  Chief among them is the college environment where the risk of sexual assault is the greatest.  Under the Campus SaVE Act, colleges and universities have an obligation to provide prevention education to all students with an explicit emphasis on primary prevention, which is geared towards stopping perpetration rather than just preventing victimization.

As parents, we should know how our child’s school plans to both prevent and act in the instance of sexual assault, because its the right thing to do, and because the Campus SaVE Act requires it.

Just a few weeks ago, the President established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.  It’s good to see the White House taking further action and driving urgency and support for higher education institutions to address the critical issues related to campus sexual assault.  And as parents, we should be taking further action, too, and that includes making sure that others are holding up their end of the prevention bargain long after we’ve dragged our children to self defense classes or lectured them about real-world risks.

If you want to know whether your child’s school is compliant with the Campus SaVE Act, ask them.  Look on the school website, call and find out.  Ask them what they are doing to educate their students.  Demand the level of accountability our children deserve.  After all, that is what the Campus SaVE Act requires.

 

Beyond Victim-Blaming: Incorporating Risk-Reduction in Sexual Assault Prevention

Emily Yoffe’s recent Slate.com article titled “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” has received much attention, and is problematic for a number of reasons.

To start, I agree with her premise that we must talk about the role of alcohol in sexual assault and present students with a variety of risk-reduction strategies that include decreased alcohol use. In fact, this was one of the considerations offered in response to a recently released EverFi Insight Report examining data on the connections between student alcohol use and sexual assault. However, risk-reduction IS NOT prevention in the primary—and, arguably, the most important—sense.

I’m reminded of my training as a self-defense instructor in which the trainers talked about three necessary elements in sexual assault: victim, perpetrator, and opportunity. Self-defense (and really any secondary prevention measure) was described as “removing or minimizing opportunity.” I would always tell women in my self-defense classes that there’s no guarantee these techniques will prevent them from being sexually assaulted. Will they feel more empowered upon completing the training? I hope so. Are they going to be better trained to protect themselves? That’s certainly one of the goals. But the most important question I asked these women was, “Protect yourself from what and who?” Simply put, self-defense is not a program geared towards the people who are doing the sexual assaulting. The same is true when it comes to young women’s alcohol use and their risk for being sexually assaulted.

One of the biggest problems I have with this article is the title: “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.”  By narrowing our focus to the behavior of the group who is primarily the victim of sexual assault (women), we conveniently lose sight of the group primarily responsible for committing it (men). Sexual assault is often referred to as gender-based violence for a reason – it is disproportionately committed by men against women (although men are certainly sexually assaulted as well, and often by other men). To almost exclusively reference “prevention” as the responsibility of women is not only victim-blaming, but perpetuates a culture where rape goes unreported, perpetrators go unpunished, and we continue to endorse the insulting and intolerable assumption that “boys will be boys.”  So when Yoffe says the best rape prevention is to tell college women to stop getting so wasted, that is problematic. The best rape prevention is to get college men to stop using alcohol to increase women’s vulnerability, stop preying on drunk women, STOP RAPING.

However, this message doesn’t sit particularly well with most college men, and for good reason. An overwhelming number of campus sexual assaults are committed by a small minority of men (~5%) who are often repeat predators (averaging ~6 rapes). Given that most men do not commit sexual assault and the ones who do tend to be particularly defensive about the “stop raping” message, a more effective approach is to promote campus environments and cultures that no longer support this behavior, even tacitly. How? We need to empower all students to raise the bar and hold these men accountable. This is the premise of bystander intervention approaches – responsibility appropriately placed on perpetrators as well as the larger campus community, NOT victims.

We know both statistically and anecdotally that alcohol is involved in the overwhelming majority of campus sexual assaults. According to a 2007 study conducted for the Department of Justice, roughly 80% of victims and 70% of perpetrators had been drinking at the time of an assault. As a field, it would be reckless and irresponsible to continue to largely ignore this relationship and not include information about the role of alcohol in sexual assault prevention programs simply because of the potential for perceived victim-blaming.

To send a balanced message, we need to focus on how alcohol is used as an enabler, facilitator, and scapegoat by perpetrators. We can talk about the cognitive and physiological impairments caused by alcohol, and the fact that women and men differ in terms of their biological ability to process it. It is possible to talk about reducing alcohol use as a form of risk-reduction from a feminist and victim-sensitive perspective; we just have to think about how we say it and what the overall focus of our approach is.

It’s a fine line between talking about how all students can keep themselves safer by drinking less and making victims feel they’re to blame if something happens to them when they were drinking. In our prevention programs, we should always proceed with caution if and when we shift our focus from perpetrators to victims. And because of the historical and unfortunately ongoing tendency to blame victims in response to sexual assault, it is critical that we believe students who are brave in reporting sexual assault and assure them that the assault was not their fault.

The bottom line is that while drinking to excess puts students at risk for all sorts of negative experiences, sexual assault is an egregious violation committed by another person to the drinker and thus should never be framed as a drinker’s self-induced consequence. Victims do not ask to be raped, and alcohol does not cause a person to be violated. Perpetrators are the cause, period.

Until we change the attitudes and behaviors of predatory students, as well as the broader culture that promotes their behavior and allows them to hurt others, sexual assault will continue to be an unacceptable epidemic on college campuses. So yes, we should encourage students to drink less because it’s in their best interest for a variety of reasons. However, the real problem is the people who are committing sexual assault. Prevention efforts aimed at perpetrators and the culture and environment that support them (i.e., primary prevention) must be our main focus. That needs to come through loud and clear in our campus violence prevention policies and programs, and unfortunately that message seemed to be lost in Emily Yoffe’s piece.

 

 

EverFi Elevates the Conversation About Campus Sexual Assault

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Lynn Rosenthal
White House Advisor on Violence Against Women

Great things happen when the right people are part of the process.

According to special guest speaker Lynn Rosenthal,White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, EverFi’s panel event on campus sexual assault prevention at the National Press Club on Wednesday brought together “exactly the right people to have this very conversation.” Indeed, the panelists represented public policy (Lisa Maatz, VP of Government Relations at AAUW), campus prevention (Holly Rider-Milkovich, Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan), and research and evaluation (Helen Stubbs, VP of Partner Education at EverFi), with closing remarks from Sharon Love (Founder/Trustee of the One Love Foundation). Audience members included representatives from local colleges and universities and national advocacy organizations*.

Insights and Implications

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National Press Club
Washington, DC

New data collected from over 200,000 incoming college students was presented by Dr. Dan Zapp (Associate Director of Research, EverFi), coinciding with the recent release of EverFi’s Insight Report titled “The Relationship Between Alcohol and Sexual Assault on the College Campus.” The data reinforce that most students come to college with relatively healthy attitudes and behaviors. However, a small minority of students move in a very negative direction after coming to college, with higher reports of unhealthy attitudes and perceptions and greater rates of sexual assault victimization and perpetration. This trend coincides with increased alcohol use and decreased protective behaviors. While the concurrent relationship between alcohol and sexual assault is clear in the data, causality cannot be inferred in either direction. This is important to note, as all too often the role of alcohol is portrayed in a way that inappropriately places responsibility and blame on victims.

This new research offers important considerations and implications for campus prevention practitioners. These include:

  • the need to identify and target these high-risk students
  • the importance of social norms and bystander intervention approaches
  • collaboration and co-curricular education on alcohol and sexual assault, especially in the first six weeks after matriculation
  • more and better evaluation of campus prevention efforts
  • increased support for survivors
  • risk-reduction education framed within the context of health promotion
  • comprehensive programming stressing primary prevention


Unmasking the Issue

According to Maatz, “ The only way we can address this problem is by actually talking about it and doing what we need to acknowledge what’s happening.”  This statement represented the need for more and better data collection and reporting to truly understand what is taking place on campuses. At first glance, the data may not look good. According to Rider-Milkovich, improved policy, prevention, and outreach efforts may result in a marked increase in students seeking services for sexual assault. This is a good sign, however, as students feel supported enough by their institution to come forward – a vital step in changing the campus culture. Rider-Milkovich referenced the need for a “data anxiety vaccine,” stating that the data are not good or bad – “it is what is.”

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(From left: Tammy Wincup (COO, EverFi), Sharon Love (Founder & Trustee, One Love Foundation), Lisa Maatz (VP of Government Relations, AAUW), Holly Rider-Milkovich (Director of Sexual Assault Prevention, University of Michigan), Helen Stubbs, VP of Higher Education, EverFi), Dr. Dan Zapp (Director of Research, EverFi)

Maatz spoke to the reticence of campuses in reporting on sexual violence: “More data is not a public relations nightmare, it is a public relations opportunity.” Understanding the state of the problem and the needs of students allows practitioners to make informed decisions about prevention and response. Increased evaluation of campus programming allows for more effective prevention efforts, and is critical for deepening the evidence base of the field. However, many campuses are constrained in their resources for evaluation. Currently, OVW campus grant recipients can only use 5% of funding for evaluation. “This is something we can take on,” says Maatz.

The Importance of Primary Prevention

“The perpetrator is the problem but the victim is always the focus,” said Sharon Love, shining light on the need for increased efforts to prevent violence before it occurs. The Campus SaVE Act explicitly calls for primary prevention programs for all incoming students and staff, but lacks guidance for campus practitioners on what this means and how it should be done. Discussing the challenges of changing a campus culture, Stubbs outlined the need for community-based approaches including social norms and bystander intervention. One of the most powerful ways to prevent perpetration is to change perpetrators’ perceptions of peer support for their problematic attitudes and behaviors.

When asked how to address the interplay between alcohol and sexual assault, Rider-Milkovich encouraged practitioners to “rewind” the conversation and talk about why college students feel the need to be drunk in order to engage in sexual behavior. From a truly “upstream” perspective, Maatz stressed the importance of talking early and talking often about these issues: “We need to start thinking about education on sexual assault and relationship violence for K-12 students.”

* National advocacy organizations present included: National Sexual Violence Resource Center, National Network to End Domestic Violence, National Organization for Women, VTV Family Outreach Foundation, Break the Cycle, One Love Foundation, Feminist Majority Foundation, American Association of University Women, Jewish Women International, YWCA USA, National Women’s Law Center, and Wider Opportunities for Women. EverFi sends a special thank you to all attendees.

 

Timely Technology: Online Sexual Assault Prevention Helps Meet Mandates

In the midst of an unprecedented movement exposing the shortcomings of campus sexual assault policy and response to victims, it’s important to “go upstream” and address the multitude of factors that contribute to the shockingly high rates of sexual violence on our nation’s campuses to begin with. Indeed, prevention education is a critical—and perhaps the most important—component of protecting students and creating safer, healthier campuses.

Screen Shot 2013-08-05 at 1.03.18 PMThis summer, EverFi launched Haven – Understanding Sexual AssaultTM, an online learning platform focused on addressing sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking at college.  Slated to reach nearly 300,000 students at over 180 campuses nationwide, Haven combines the power of cutting-edge technology, interactive digital media, and evidence-based content to provide a comprehensive and engaging learning experience for students. Haven also supports campus prevention practitioners as a scalable approach for reaching students, meeting Federal mandates (including the recent Campus SaVE Act), and collecting key data to inform and enhance future programming.

The spotlight of increased accountability on campuses provides an opportunity for leadership and innovation in addressing sexual assault, and the addition of Haven is an invaluable step forward for campus prevention.  To hear more about prevention strategies and the challenges facing students, administrators, and practitioners at IHE’s today, please register for our webinar, A Roadmap for Prevention: Navigating the Landscape of Campus Sexual Assault, on Wednesday, August 7th at 2PM ET.

To learn more about EverFi’s recent launch of Haven, check out our recent press release!

Making Sense of Money on College Campuses

Emily Hester

Helping dollars make sense on a college campus isn’t easy, but it is vitally important. For staff at Louisiana State University in the Student Financial Management Center, we want students to not only be retained and to graduate, but we want to help equip them with the tools they need to be successful in the “real world” and we know that a big part of that comes from financial and money management education.

Student DebtFour years ago, one-third of LSU students identified their current financial situation as always or often stressful. What we know is that if a student is stressed about his or her finances then focusing on academics and other pieces of the college experience become exponentially more difficult. So, knowing the problem – we are working toward a solution. At LSU, this starts Day 1, or in reality Day 0 in their life as a LSU tiger. During each orientation session, incoming LSU students are educated about financial literacy and keeping a budget while they are students. Through teaching them about the resources and the reasons for overspending, we are trying to tackle the problem of lack of financial education head-on. This also comes with a focus on first year students. In partnership with First Year Experience, the LSU SFMC created a five-part series called First Year Finances helping students learn how to earn, spend, save, and repay money.

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Click for Full Infographic

In addition, we spread the word of financial literacy through presentations to courses, student organizations, Greek organizations, and in the residence halls. Bottom line, if a group will let us talk to students about the importance of money management – we make ourselves available. However, probably the most intimate way we are helping teach financial literacy is through our one-on-one appointments. In the one-on-one setting we are able to help a student create a budget using their financial history and behaviors and answer questions specific to the student. We have found students to appreciate the one-on-one attention. Following an appointment one student said, “The staff in the SFMC was very warm and understanding of a typical college student’s financial woes. Whether you’re just entering college, or about to leave campus for the big, scary world, I felt confident that the advice she was giving me was not only helpful, but would be easy to implement and follow so that I could be financially stable during this scary time.“ We believe our background in student affairs helps us to better serve LSU students and help put financial concepts in easy to understand language.

Last, and certainly not least, the Student Financial Management Center focuses a significant amount of time and resources to sending students to resources on the web. We recognize that we cannot touch every student in person, but we do have the opportunity to reach thousands of students through the internet.

Finally, this year LSU took the leap into implementing Buttonwood: The LSU Financial Literacy Challenge for all first year and transfer students. For the first time in the four years of our existence, we have been able to educate the large mass of first year students having a completion rate of over 62%. Only time will tell what this means for LSU students, but we are excited for the potential to come in educating LSU students regarding financial literacy. Geaux Tigers!

FinLit Month

Defining “Digital Identity” at NASPA 2013

Digital Identity word cloud

As someone who has been on Facebook for almost a decade, it is hard to remember life before social media.  But I do, sort of.

I remember the letter Mrs. Freeman sent home in 6th grade alerting parents to the distracting nature of America Online, as it was definitely “a disruption to studying.”  I remember picking my screen-name “Shnoogle,” (cringe) and the……dial-up…static…and satisfying welcome chime! that became a nightly habit.  Hearing the words “you’ve got mail,” brought a new pleasure never before experienced.  And that was just the beginning.

NAPSA LogoI recently returned from my first NASPA conference (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators). The conference brings together student affairs administrators of all levels at receptions, luncheons, and other miscellaneous events. However, the best networking occurs during the educational sessions and featured speakers.

It was during one of these speaker sessions that I had the opportunity to hear Eric Stoller, Student Affairs and Technology blogger for Inside Higher Ed, speak to a room of young student affairs professionals on how to help students develop their digital identities.

Eric asked the obvious question “how do we define digital identity”?

Some hands shot up…

“It’s who you present yourself to be online.”

“It’s what shows up when you google yourself.”

“It’s your brand.”

I thought about how I would answer the question myself.  It’s you, online.  Simple.  But then I thought about all pictures that don’t make it on to Facebook profiles, or in some cases, unfortunately do.

When one of the student affairs administrators asked Eric how to deal with frat members posting photos of themselves wearing their letters while taking shots of tequila, he answered “social didn’t invent stupidity overnight.”

Screen Shot 2013-03-26 at 9.32.43 AMIn other words, students have been saying and doing dumb stuff forever.  Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram just make it so much easier.  And likes, retweets and comments, just validate and encourage them to do it more frequently.

Most of us don’t count the number of times in a week that someone laughs at a joke, compliments our shirt, or gives you a fist bump for no reason.  So why do we get excited when our new profile picture gets 11 likes?  Because the feeling is instant and self-affirming.

“Yes, I do look awesome in this photo.  Yes, my kid is the absolute cutest, so let me share another 37 pictures with you…”

We’ve all heard horror stories about embarrassing photos being posted online, or career-ending tweets.  We’ve heard of people creating “professional Facebook” vs. “personal Facebook” or trying to lockdown content areas using a complex formula of privacy settings.  But the hard truth is that the notion of ‘online privacy’ is a fallacy.

We can’t be all things to everyone, but we can be everything to a select few.  So who we talk to, and how we talk to them matter.  Context matters.  And in the context of social media we have to develop a digital identity that is both true to ourselves and aware of our audience (everyone).

To me, this feels like good old-fashioned student development.  Teach and train around positive values and respectful conversation.  If it seems hard, it’s because the current generation of students has little, or no memory of life before social media, and so it’s up to parents, mentors, and teachers to steer them back on to the path, even when we may not know where it leads.