Please note, this post was last updated in 2018 and I no longer update this website.
Digital footprint, digital shadow, online reputation, digital tattoo — whatever you call it, it’s a term that’s too important to ignore yet often isn’t discussed in homes or classrooms.
Wikipedia describes a digital footprint as:
One’s unique set of traceable digital activities, actions, contributions and communications that are manifested on the Internet or on digital devices.
This post looks at how we can teach kids about digital footprints and breaks down the key points. There are lesson and activity ideas. You can also find 10 important things to know about digital footprints summarised in a poster further down.
Promoting Positivity, Not Fear
Traditionally, digital footprint resources tended to focus on the negatives and promoted a culture of fear. This isn’t helpful. Our students are generally heavy internet users and scare tactics are unlikely to make them want to disconnect completely. Nor would we want them to.
While we can’t be complacent, the message I like to promote is that we should protect and shape our digital footprints, and try to ensure they’re positive.
Encouraging students to avoid posting or doing anything online is not the answer.
As the Harley Davidson commercial famously said,
When you write the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.
When it comes to digital footprints we have some control.
But We’re Not Always In Control
Digital footprints are sometimes defined as active and passive. It’s important to remember that despite aiming to “hold the pen” and write our own story, this is not always going to be possible.
Images can be altered. Data is stored and accessed without our knowledge. Words can be misquoted. Intentions can be misread. Personal interactions can be shared. Individuals can be tagged without permission. We can’t assume we always have control.
So, what is the answer?
Perhaps as Seth Godin once said,
The Weight Of Digital Footprints
Back in 2009 Chris Betcher said:
I can see a day in the not too distant future … where your ‘digital footprint’ will carry far more weight than anything you might include in a resume or CV.
Has that day come? Probably. But some people might not realise it.
Reports of colleges or employers relying on Google searches to help make judgements about applicants are nothing new. But maybe where the search used to focus on character judgements, there is now an additional expectation that a portfolio of work will be available?
Surely an archive of online work is going to begin carrying more weight than an outdated qualification or random personal reference?
What Should Be Shared?
One certainty is that young people need guidance navigating the online world, just like the offline world. Because of their age and limited life experience, it can be difficult for students to consider if what they’re happy to post online now is something they’ll still be happy with in 1/5/10/20 years.
There are certain things you can teach students to definitely avoid sharing online. One acronym I’ve always liked using is YAPPY (Your full name, Address, Phone number, Passwords, Your plans and birthday).
There are many grey areas beyond YAPPY though — sharing opinions, sharing information about others, deciding if content you create should have a public audience… the list goes on. Experience and conversation can be vital.
Feel free to use the above visual on your blog if it would be helpful. Just link back to my site!
Beyond Students: What are Teachers and Parents Doing?
Have you ever cringed seeing a fellow teacher post a questionable photo or loaded opinion on social media? I have. Perhaps underestimating the importance of digital footprints is still a widespread problem.
Another scenario that I still believe is common is teachers not having a digital footprint at all. These issues are worrisome to me when thinking about the need for educators to be role models.
Nowadays, an individual’s digital footprint often starts being created before they are even born. Perhaps with a pregnancy announcement on social media followed by all sorts of childhood “firsts” broadcast for an online audience. What are the consequences of this? We can’t know for sure, but maybe more education, discussion, and awareness of digital footprints is required within the wider community.
Can our students assist with this task?
How To Teach Children About Digital Footprints
Digital footprints comes under the umbrella of digital citizenship. This used to be called cyber safety or internet safety, but the definition has broadened.
In Teaching Digital Citizenship: 10 Internet Safety Tips for Students, I suggested a four layered approach to covering digital citizenship.
The same approach could be useful for digital footprint education.
- INTEGRATION: Digital footprint education should be embedded into the curriculum in an ongoing and authentic way (e.g. through a classroom blogging program).
- STORYTELLING: Students should be presented with “real-life” scenarios to consider, discuss, and learn from.
- STRATEGIES: Practical strategies should be taught so students build a toolkit of actionable ideas and skills.
- COMMUNITY: Messages from parents and educators should overlap and there should be ongoing communication.
Read more about this model.
Conversations around digital footprints should be on the agenda from an early age and this is a topic for the whole community. The work of one teacher is not enough.
10 Things Young People Need To Know About Digital Footprints
I’ve summarised these key points in a poster below which you’re welcome to use in your classroom.
- When you visit websites, search, and interact online, a trail of information is left behind.
- Elements of your digital footprints can be searched or shared.
- Digital footprints can be helpful or harmful to reputations both now and in the future.
- Once online, things can exist forever (even if deleted).
- You should always think before you post online.
- Personal information or opinions sent to one person can be shared with a larger audience.
- Googling yourself can be a good habit to get into (or try a search engine like Pipl).
- Old or inactive accounts should be disabled or deleted.
- You should keep certain personal details private and you can control the privacy settings on many of your online accounts.
- We need to be mindful of the digital footprints of others too (e.g. Ask before tagging others in photos).
Resources For Teaching About Digital Footprints
Check out this great video by Common Craft. The simple explanation makes it clear to students that everything they do online leaves a trail, and this is something they should be cautious of. It also reminds students what they can do to take control of their digital footprint.
This short video from the eSafety Office could be a good classroom discussion starter for older students.
Digital reputation | What comes up when you Google yourself?
- Follow the Digital Trail: A Common Sense Media lesson for lower primary students
- Trillion Dollar Footprint: A Common Sense Media lesson for upper primary/lower secondary students
- Oops! I Broadcast It on the Internet: A Common Sense Media lesson for upper secondary students
- Private Today, Public Tomorrow: A Common Sense Media lesson for upper secondary students
- Office of the eSafety Commissioner: Digital Reputations information page
- Common Sense on Privacy and Digital Footprints: Family tip sheet
- Six ways to Protect Your Information Online: Tips for young people
Young people are naturally wired to take risks. In the pre-internet days it was easier. Sharing of personal details was often confined to letters, diaries, or phones calls, not a global audience. Some risks were less consequential.
We want our students to continue to be curious creators who enjoy connecting with the world in purposeful ways. Let’s help guide them to build a positive digital footprint as they do just that. You never know what amazing opportunities could come of it.