A digital footprint is essentially the trail we leave online. It’s a record of our online activities and communications, and these little data traces remain on the Internet or on any electronic devices we may be using. This includes email records, social media posts, sites visited, Skype calls and messaging, online shopping, apps that we may use – they all help to paint a picture of who we are.

As parents of digital children, it is critical that we provide guidance to them on this topic, so that they are better able to safeguard themselves. In fact, we all need to learn to protect ourselves online, in terms of our reputations, relationships, privacy and, even our finances and personal identity.

Our children are a generation of visual learners and visual attention seekers who are living their lives online. Through social media, they connect with their peers, whilst the Internet is their connection to knowledge. Their devices are always within reach and it takes mere seconds to post something or like a photo, all the while documenting online their every move or thought or viewpoint. Most teens seem unconcerned about sharing personal information online – perhaps not realising that they are creating a digital legacy for themselves that will follow them for the rest of their lives. This digital reputation they are building online can have enormous ramifications for them.

Digital Citizenship

We teach our children to talk and read, we teach them manners and a set of values but, as parents in a digital age, we now need to educate our children about digital citizenship, and that code is being written as we go along!
Digital citizenship is the acceptable norms of what is deemed as appropriate and responsible use of technology. And again, this is important because the use of technology is directly affecting their personal reputations and therefore, potentially, their futures. It is really a code of ethics – nine elements pertaining to digital rights and responsibilities, etiquette, security, literacy, access, commerce, communication, the law, and lastly, health and wellness.

What can impact your digital footprint?

The short answer to that question is really anything you post online that has a negative spin on it. Be aware of what you say online, avoid hate speech, racial slurs, verbal attacks on others – which can all be seen to be cyber bullying. The golden rule is to treat others the way you would want to be treated.

It is equally important to make our children aware that the same legal consequences apply online as in the real world. Advise your children to be very careful about sharing other people’s private information online as they could be held legally accountable. If they tag someone, again, they could be legally accountable.

There is also a perception that once you delete something off the internet or other social media platforms, that it’s completely gone but that is not necessarily true. It’s never really gone.

Social media is becoming a key platform for employers in the screening of potential applicants. They would typically use this information to establish how applicants conduct themselves, to see if they are a good fit with the company culture perhaps and also to verify information such as how they communicate or behave, their qualifications and so on. Research indicated that about 34% of employers found content that caused them not to hire a candidate. As such, future opportunities can definitely be affected by online behaviour. There is no doubt that universities, other tertiary institutions and possibly even schools, also can and do view your child’s online profile. This could influence decisions they make.

Locally, we know of instances where scholarships have been denied to students as a direct result of inappropriate online content posted by candidates, which the institutions didn’t want to be associated with.

The focus should be to build a positive brand. Encourage your child to create an online profile which is firstly a positive image of themselves as individuals but is also non-specific, general and simple. This is safe to share publicly. This personal brand should be the image of themselves that they would want to portray to potential employers – something they are proud of.
They need to limit the amount of personal information shared. Research done showed that 91% of teens post photos of themselves, 71% post the name of their school, 71% the town they live in, 53% their email address and 20% their cell numbers, and these numbers keep increasing. This could put them at risk from online predators.
Increase their privacy settings on all their personal information and check these settings frequently as new policies and settings imbedded in an update could change their settings. Nothing is ever completely private but these settings do help.

Digital Footprint – Take away points

The truth of the matter is, when we were growing up, the mistakes we made or the spats we had with others remained mostly unseen and weren’t remembered years later. In the words of Kevin Honeycutt, an education advocate, our children’s mistakes are “Googleable”. It is no longer easy to erase a mistake, especially when it has been posted online.
Finally to summarise, we believe that the following is the essence of the message we should relate to our children, in order to protect themselves online as much as they possibly can:
• Your digital footprint creates a picture of you, so build your personal brand!
• Protect your online reputation.
• Don’t overshare.
• Remember, nothing is permanently deleted.
• Online profiles are used for screening candidates – your future studies or job interviews could be on the line!
• Use common sense… if your instincts tell you that you shouldn’t do something online, then trust your instincts!

Article by Nicoleen Davies.


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