TIPS - Helping children understand their digital footprint

When should you start the “digital footprint” or “online reputation” conversation with your child? Like most matters, it will depend on your child’s maturity and, in this particular instance, on their access to and use of digital devices.
If your child has recently started to use digital devices and social media, you are likely to be providing them a fair bit of guidance on how to use devices and apps – if you are not, give it a thought, it is well worth it, as shown by our article on the dangers that children face online. 
Make space for a special time to discuss with your child what they do and post on the internet. On the first occasion you do so, make sure your child has a basic understanding of what the internet and the online world is (our article on this topic will help you). Regular chats about the online world will progressively give your child a sense of what constitutes an appropriate and safe online behaviour. Regular chats will also give you the opportunity to break down the information for your child and discuss it over several days rather than having a long conversation which, if too long, your child will not remember in the long term.
If your child has been online and using social media for a while, it is never too late to have the digital footprint conversation and give your child a sense of empowerment.
Where to start? You can use two metaphors: the footprint in the sand and the iceberg (or even the ice-cream cone).
Like every step we take on a beach leaves a footprint on the sand, everything we do with our online devices (including phones) leaves a digital footprint: the websites we visit, the comments we post, our check-in locations, the messages and photos we send. Make sure your child understands that if they send a photo through their phone or computer to someone, it is out of their hands and it only requires another set of hands to put it on the internet or text it to someone else who can, in turn, text it to someone else… which means the whole world could see it. Serious stuff. Unlike our footprints on the sand, nothing will come to wash these photos or our digital footprint away.
So, some of your digital foot print, like the website one visits, may not be easily visible by third parties (but might still be dug out one day) – that is the part of the iceberg which is under water or the ice-cream hidden in the cone. However, another part of your digital footprint is more easily visible by others, it includes comments or photos posted on social media, email or texts to only name a few – this last category is the top of the iceberg or the scoop of ice-cream on top of the ice-cream cone.
As parents, it is also worth keeping in mind to look at the concept of digital footprint from three different perspectives:
- The digital footprint your kids are creating during their childhood and teenage years;
- The fact that your kids can see what your digital foot print is made up of; and
- The overlap between your digital footprint and your kids’ (for example, think of the photos of your children which you have posted on social media).
In order to navigate the online world safely, it is important that children understand early on that on the one hand, a negative digital footprint may, in the immediate or distant future, generate feelings of shame, embarrassment, sadness or pain while, on the other hand, a positive digital footprint can lead to happiness, fun, pride and bring great opportunities in their lives.
The golden rules and the activity below will help you guide your child into developing a positive digital footprint.
The golden rules to develop a positive digital footprint are simple:
1. Be safe: do not disclose your name, address, date of birth, passwords, school or name of your sport team.
2. Do not post photos or videos which can help someone guess the information listed above (e.g.: do not post phots of you in your school uniform as it makes it easy to guess where you go to school. Do not post a photo of yourself in front of your house etc.).
3. Make sure your privacy settings are on and that only your trusted friends can see what you post.
4. Delete old social media accounts andother data you no longer want to see online (keeping in mind that someone may unfortunately have somewhere a copy of the data you are deleting).
5. Only accept friend requests from friends you know in real life.
6. Before you post or send anything (especially photos and comments): pause and think as whatever you are about to post is going to be out of your hands and forever. It can be re-posted or shared or screenshot by anyone, anywhere, anytime. It is like having what you posted on giant billboards anywhere in the world – anyone could see it.
7. Be respectful of others: do not engage in gossip, do not bully, do not post someone’s photo or video or tag them without their permission.
To further engage with your child on this topic and help them get a sense their digital footprint, try this:
1- Ask your child to google themselves.
2- Help your child map out their digital footprint to see what it looks like. This is going further than a quick google, it involves taking a look at social media, photos sent, tags, number of emails sent etc. For each data, help your child reflect on the following questions: What did you find? When was it posted online? Who posted it or shared it? Is your child happy to see it online today? Would your child be happy to still see it online in the future? What would other people (teachers, family, neighbours, future employers etc.) think of it?
3- Help your child delete old social media accounts and other data they no longer want to see online (keeping in mind that someone might unfortunately, somewhere, have a copy of the data you are deleting).
4- Help your child reset their privacy settings.
5- Explore with your child the topics they can safely share about to help them start building their positive digital footprint. Examples are: their art, written works and other creations (on this topic, check out our previous article on kids & intellectual property), photos of cute animals, science projects, favourite books, shows, singers and movies – and when doing so, do not forget the golden rules!).
It can be educational and fun - keep the online safety skills conversation going!
If you are a child or teen worried about your digital foot print you can ask help from you parents (or another trusted adult) who should be proud of your decision to ask you help. You can also, if you are in Australia and under 25 years old, have a web chat with Kids Helpline or make a free call to them on 1800 55 1800.
The eSafety Commissioner’s website has great videos designed for kids.
This is an article from Forbes demonstrating how posting about your kids online could potentially damage their future and raising the topic of children’s right to privacy.
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