For teens, a real-life study in staying power of mistakes

President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, listens to a question while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, for the second day of his confirmation hearing to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, listens to a question while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, for the second day of his confirmation hearing to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

The drama surrounding President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court over the nominee’s behavior in the 1980s has reinforced a warning today’s social media-savvy high school students have grown up hearing: What they say and do now will live well past graduation.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh faces a historic hearing Thursday over assault allegations dating back to his high school and college years. He has denied the allegations.

Some teenagers today say they are more mindful of the enduring quality of their words and actions because they’ve grown up with the internet, and social media posts are increasingly part of the college admission and job vetting process.

In contrast, the evidence collected in the Kavanaugh’s past includes decades-old yearbooks and calendars.

California high school senior Maya Carpenter, 17, says she’s taken classes since middle school on being safe on the internet, and her high school offers a digital citizenship class on the subject.

“They put a lot of emphasis on how whatever you say never really goes away,” she said. “What’s happening with the Kavanaugh hearings is a great example of that.”

At least 10 prospective Harvard University students learned this lesson the hard way last year when their dream school rescinded admission offers after they traded posts on Facebook that were reportedly often sexually explicit and mocked Mexicans, the Holocaust, sexual assault and child abuse.

Colleges also make no secret of the fact they visit applicants’ social media profiles. A Kaplan Test Prep survey in April said 68 percent of colleges consider profiles on Facebook and Instagram “fair game” as they decide who gets admitted.

A big difference today — it’s unlikely to take 30 years for misconduct to cause problems.

“It’s definitely something that a lot of people are aware of,” said Georgia VanDerwater, 18, of Holland, New York.

She is cautious about what she posts online, and even her mother keeps tabs on her social media posts and messages when she sees something that could be troublesome down the road.

“Be it a joke or a swear word in a tweet, I send it back. I will write and say, ‘I just want you to know that when I read this I interpreted it this way, and so other people might interpret it this way,'” said Georgia’s mother, Amy VanDerwater.

Kavanaugh is pushing back against allegations of sexual misconduct and excessive drinking in the early 1980s as he tries to convince senators he is worthy of a Supreme Court seat. His 1983 high-school yearbook refers to plenty of drinking while at Georgetown Preparatory School, the private all-boys school in Maryland, including being treasurer of the “Keg City Club” — “100 Kegs or Bust.”

Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says schools have been steering students toward more constructive yearbook posts for years.

“Principals and yearbook advisors have always dissuaded students from writing inappropriate commentary in their yearbook,” he said, “understandably because such comments reflect badly on both the school and the student.”

But it’s not just bad acts that live on.

VanDerwater, a freshman at the State University of New York at Geneseo, knows that if a potential employer Googles her name, they’ll see that she helped organize a high school walkout last year to demonstrate for stricter gun control, and that she called out a Republican congressman for not taking part in a forum on the topic.

As she got involved with gun protests, she had to weigh whether that political activity might work against her if she tries getting a job with an employer with different political views. In the end, she decided it was worth it because a company like that wasn’t a right fit anyway.

“But it definitely could make a difference, because if you Google my name, that will come up,” she said. “I’ve thought about that.”

Sophomore James Connor at Northport High School in New York said students like him are being reminded by parents and teachers of how youthful indiscretion can come back to haunt them, “but we also do learn that a lot from just growing up and being online in the 21st century.”


Associated Press journalist Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.