LinkedIn moves to protect teens

SAN ANSELMO, CA - JANUARY 27: In this photo illustration, the LinkedIn logo is displayed on the screen of a laptop computer on January 27, 2011 in San Anselmo, California. Social networking internet site LinkedIn Corp. filed documents with the U.S. regulators for an initial public offering. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan

(MoneyWatch) LinkedIn (LNKD), in a bid for continued growth, has decided to target high school students, much as Facebook (FB) did in its early years. Not only would the move open doors to the lucrative college recruiting market, but could get students accustomed to using the service.

However, allowing users as young as 14 years old adds potentially thorny security and privacy issues. So LinkedIn is boosting the degree of protection available, including a way to block specific accounts, a feature the company has been criticized by some users for not previously offering.

LinkedIn has been the model of a successful social media company. The stock did well at its debut, and has continued to climb. Revenue is up steadily and it has been profitable for years. But investors want continued growth. That's where high school students come in.

Certainly there is an extended case to be made for why LinkedIn would see high school students as part of the job recruiting ecosystem. Eventually, many of them will go to college and then enter the labor pool. The earlier that LinkedIn can pull them into its social network, the better the chance the company has to become more important online and improve its long-range business prospects. It's similar to Apple's strategy of seeding the educational market with Macs in order to get people entering the workforce in the habit of using them.

"University Pages" will "provide [students] with access to actual data to help them make more informed decisions about where they go to school," according to an email from a LinkedIn spokesperson. If they want to work for particular companies, "they can look through the alumni of their top school choices, and see who has gone on to work for that company, what they are skilled at and the path they took to get there."

There is also a more direct monetary reason for the move. Under LinkedIn's business model, there are three primary revenue areas: premium subscriptions paid by members, marketing solutions, and talent solutions. The latter comprises recruitment services and products and is the largest source of revenue. In the first six months of 2013, talent solutions made up 54 percent of total revenue.

If LinkedIn can make itself a standard stop for college research, it might also attract the higher education recruitment market. Colleges have long been sophisticated about how to compete for students and keep the flow of education -- and tuition -- going. And that's even without considering what schools spend on recruiting athletes.

According a 2011 Department of Education report examined by scholars at Stanford, colleges spend more of their institutional aid dollars "trying to attract the students they desire than on meeting the financial need of the low- and moderate-income students they enroll." If schools spend money on YouTube videos, advertising, massive marketing collateral, and even Groupon promotions, there may be a chance that LinkedIn can attract some of that cash.

Keeping private

The very things that LinkedIn tells students to add to their profiles -- such as honors and awards, test scores, projects, and courses -- are as likely to interest college recruiters as hiring managers. But by lowering the minimum user age to 14, LinkedIn is entering some dangerous territory.

LinkedIn has had problems even with adult users who complain about being stalked on the site. Some users have said found themselves stalked by ex-spouses and romantic interests as well as former co-workers. Up until recently, the company had yet to institute the type of account blocking -- one user keeping another from seeing his or her status, information, and interactions -- that can be found on Facebook and Twitter. 

Users could make information unavailable to others who were not connected to them, but only in an all-or-nothing fashion. Keeping a stalker from seeing information also meant preventing potential connections from seeing it, which was a major limitation on a business networking site. As LinkedIn director of corporate communications Hani Durzy wrote during a June email exchange, "We believe that the controls we currently have in place offer the right balance for our members as a whole."

But things have changed. LinkedIn is instituting special privacy settings, including keeping profiles from appearing in public search engines and hiding birthdates from others. According to the LinkedIn spokesperson, the company is also "actively working on" a blocking feature.

Teens are even more vulnerable to potential stalking and online abuse. Not only are sexual predators an issue, but online bullying has become a serious problem, with some teens committing suicide as a result of being targeted. A blocking feature for LinkedIn would be a strategic must.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.