By now, you’ve probably heard the news that Harvard rescinded admission offers to at least 10 students who participated in a private Facebook group where offensive and hateful memes were posted.

The memes—photos with captions—depicted an array of tasteless topics including mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, while others were directed at various ethnic and racial groups. One of these memes was a photo of a hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child captioned “piñata time.”

“Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character,” states the official Facebook group for the Class of 2021, which is run by the Admissions Office. No other Facebook groups are officially sanctioned by Harvard, and the group in question was an unofficial one.

How did Harvard find out about the offensive chat group? Someone in that group took screen shots of the memes and shared them with the Harvard Crimson, the college’s student newspaper. Since Facebook has a “real name” policy, it was easy for the Admissions Office to look up the students and rescind their offers.

The lesson here is that it’s really important to teach our students about the fact that there’s really nothing private about the internet, and anything a person says or does while on the internet has the capacity to come back and bite them later on.

That’s not to say that students can’t be themselves, of course, but it’s important to teach them about privacy settings on social media channels, first of all. But even then, “anything posted online, no matter how private they think it is, is permanent,” wrote Luvvie Ajayi in a New York Times op-ed column.

A student’s digital reputation can be made or broken by their digital record, which they may be tarnishing before they even fully understand the consequences.

The penalty the Harvard students paid for their tastelessness is minimal—believe it or not—compared to the loss of a job or not even getting a job offer because potential employers Google them and find the stuff the Harvard Admissions Office does.

Ultimately, the lesson every student needs to learn is to subject their social media postings publicly or in groups to what one friend calls “the Mom test”: would you want your mother to see this post? If not, think before you click that Post or Tweet button.

Or, as Ajayi says, “If you wouldn’t want something you posted to end up on a Jumbotron in Times Square, DO NOT POST IT.”

It’s never too early for students to start learning about digital literacy. Despite social media networks’ rules, many people have social media profiles before they are 13 years old. If you start teaching digital literacy along with internet safety, you will go a long way to making your students’ futures a bit brighter.

Photo: Gil C /