For kids in elementary school, it's probably too early to be thinking about college. But with kids using social media at younger ages than ever, it’s not too early for them to learn about protecting their online reputation.

Whether your child has an Instagram feed sprinkled with photos from an unsupervised house party, or a few innocent Facebook posts about being bored in class, she could send the wrong signals to colleges years before she fills out her first application.

In 2013, Kaplan Test Prep surveyed 381 admission counselors from colleges across the country and found that 29 percent of them search applicants on Google and 31 percent check applicants' Facebook profiles—both numbers are the highest ever. Thirty percent of the time, counselors found something in these virtual inspections that negatively affected a student's chances of being accepted, down from 35 percent in 2012.

When Counselors Check Social Media

Counselors don't have time to Google every applicant or search for their Facebook page. But Kaplan found that admission officers sometimes check on social media if something on a student's application seems exaggerated or too good to be true. “Social media serves as sort of a wild card,” says Jeff Olson, vice president of data science at Kaplan Test Prep. “There is a chance that it could come into play.”

Angel Perez, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Pitzer College in Southern California, says counselors may be tipped off by current students, usually after an applicant has spent some time on campus with a student host. If the current student sees something disturbing, the student might alert the admissions office. Perez says activity that casts a student in a negative light could change an admission decision from a yes to a no. 

"Schools are very concerned about their reputation, and they're concerned about the environment they're creating with who they're admitting to the school," Olson says.

What You Can Do

  • Search. Regularly check for your child's name on Google and other search engines. College admissions counselors are likely to do the same.
  • Find out what your kid uses. "Social media" doesn't just mean Facebook. Every year new social networks crop up, and some are more appropriate for kids to use than others. Find out which ones your child uses and do your research to understand the differences between them.
  • Use privacy settings. Every social media platform is different, but they all allow users to keep their activities private. Spend some time educating yourself on how privacy settings work, and adjust these settings so your child's account is not visible to the general public.
  • Remove past posts. People often post musings on Facebook and Twitter that they later regret. These can be anything: spreading rumors about a teacher, personally attacking a fellow student, sharing controversial opinions, complaining, bragging, etc. Deleting even very old, seemingly minor posts makes a profile more palatable to an admissions counselor.
  • Beware of pictures. Maybe other kids were pictured getting into trouble, and your child was just a bystander. Even so, being tagged in a photo can raise doubts about your own child's character. Your kid can prevent this from happening by adjusting settings on her account to have more control over being tagged in pictures.
  • Teach online manners. Talk to your child about her behavior online. This can be especially helpful when your child is young, before she picks up any bad habits. The rule of thumb is that you shouldn't say something online you wouldn't say in person.

If worrying about college admissions so early in your child's life seems overbearing, keep in mind that social media isn't going away. It's a part of life for people of all ages. Job opportunities and personal friendships can be affected, positively and negatively, by social media. Using it responsibly is something everyone should know how to do.