What Every Teen Needs to Know About Their Digital Footprint

Mar 27, 2019

Two teen girls sitting outside taking selfies on smartphone

Do your teens know that every time they go online they leave a digital footprint or trail, like cookie crumbs leading from the kitchen to their bedroom? The only difference: these trails of crumbs will never be erased and could either hurt or help them later in life.

Kids are growing up in the instant data era, where photos can be taken and uploaded to the Internet in a matter of seconds. If you or your friends have ever posted about being lucky cell phone cameras and social media weren’t around when you were in high school or college, you know the impact of social media mistakes and a digital footprint. Is your teen’s digital footprint reflective of their online life?

Let's take a step back. First, the term "digital footprint" means: "One's unique set of digital activities, actions and communications that leave a data trace on the Internet or on a computer or other digital device and can identify the particular user or device," according to Dictionary.com.

Understanding Your Digital Footprint


In other words: It's what's left behind as you casually browse the web, post on social media or even type into a chat service. Whether or not you’re aware, you contribute to your digital footprint or profile each day when you log onto the Internet. The websites you visit, the news posts you comment on, the comments you leave on social media platforms— each of these items come together to create a portrait of your online life.

The digital footprint that is left behind can have repercussions in all areas of your teen's life, potentially resulting in missed job opportunities, public sharing of personal information, ruined relationships — or, in what is likely more relevant to them right now: Their parents finding out what they've been up to and subsequently being punished.

Why Good Digital Citizenship is Important for Kids


Your child’s digital footprint and the way the behave online, their digital citizenship, are important because teens have grown up with technology all around them and are not yet equipped with the knowledge that their actions go far beyond that blog comment or Facebook post they just left. A poor decision made in a split second can damage your child’s digital footprint and follow them to adulthood, which is why teaching your child about good digital citizenship and social media etiquette is of the utmost importance.

Take for example, the teens who had their admission offers rescinded because of their behavior in a Facebook group for newly admitted students. Those students likely spent their entire academic careers preparing for admission to an Ivy League school, only to have their online behavior ruin what they had worked towards.

The Harvard Crimson reported that “In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups.” After being notified of the chat and its contents, Harvard administrators acted by rescinding offers for at least 10 members of the group.

While the students in question did not intend for their highly inappropriate posts to be seen worldwide, the moral of the story is – nothing is truly private on the Internet. And, while this seems like an obvious statement to make, the truth is that kids of all ages are still making social media mistakes that could affect their future.

Make sure your teen is aware of what their digital footprint looks like and what it means for them now, and further down the line, with these simple talking points.

Social Media Isn’t Going Away


While growing up, many of us heard the threat in school — “this is going on your permanent record!” We questioned whether the third-grade teacher and middle school principals really had a permanent record for each of us. But it turns out, in this digital age, those teachers were right. There is a permanent record on social media and people actually look at it!

Your digital footprint can negatively impact your teens if they aren't careful. For example:

  • According to a study by CareerBuilder, 70% of employers say that they screen potential employees on social media and that what they find does have an impact on hiring decisions.
  • And from that same CareerBuilder study, 51% of employers found content on social media that caused them to pass on an otherwise good candidate. Most common reasons to pass included provocative or inappropriate photos or information (46%), bad mouthing a previous company or fellow employees (36%), and poor communication skills (32%).
  • A survey from Kaplan found that 40% of college admissions officers visited applicants' social media pages when making decisions.

This means that what your teen posts online could have a significant impact on their success later in life. While these stats sound threatening, remind your teens: It's not all bad news.

How Kids Can Improve Their Digital Footprint


Your teen's digital footprint can be controlled by following some simple Internet-use rules. Making smart choices when online can even lead to a positive digital footprint down the line that can help them succeed in college and their career.

When talking to your teen about their digital footprint, give them the following tips:

  1. Always Be Smart When Web Browsing

    Don't visit sites that make you nervous, uncomfortable or unsure about what you're looking at. If you're at school or a friend's house and see someone doing so, tell an adult right away.

  2. Turn on Your Social Media Privacy Settings

    Facebook hasn't always been forthcoming about their privacy settings and have come under fire many times because of it. However, every social site, blog, and online profile has privacy settings. The most important of these settings: Make your account private and manually approve any new friends or followers.

  3. Be Responsible on Social Media

    Don't ever disclose personal information, like your address, phone number or bank information. And most importantly, think before you post. Anything you post online, whether it's a social media upload, a comment on a blog post, or a response in a forum, is public and can be discovered by almost anyone.

Some Things Are Out of Your Control


While teens should know that they can take precautions to reduce the amount of people who can see what they put online, it's important that they also know that the Internet is public and there are some things that will always be out of their control. Some of these things include:

  • Photo uploads
    Photos that are uploaded online can become the property of the website to which you uploaded it. While sites like Facebook may never do anything with that, it's forever online, on their servers, and very much out of your control. Uploading a bad picture and deleting it a few minutes or seconds later doesn't change this.
  • IP Address
    IP (Internet Protocol) addresses are linked to every action on every device that's used to access the Internet. Police can use this information to find out what device was being used in a crime and hackers can use it to steal information from your computer or inject a virus. The only way to hide this is to use a VPN or other technically challenging tactics and software.

Social Media Can Be a Good Thing


While all of this will sound scary to your teen, it's important to remind them that it also presents a great opportunity. A positive digital footprint can bode very well for them in the future and teens could use their digital footprint as an opportunity to build their own brand.

In fact, the same Kaplan survey found that a third of admissions officers said they discovered details that showed leadership and interest in community service, which reflected favorably on the applicants.

Some ways to build a positive footprint include participating in professional group forums, maintaining a blog about their interests, and posting schoolwork that they're proud of. Teens can use websites like SoundCloud to upload musical projects or About.Me to feature their best work online.

Investigate Your Own Reputation


We’re all better off by minimizing the amount of personal information we have online, as hackers compile this data to try to breach accounts. If you have not taken a look at your digital footprint, it’s time to trace it and see what’s out there about you.

The easiest way to see what’s out there on the Internet about you is to place your name in quotation marks into a search engine — Google, Bing, Yahoo! — and sift through the results. If your name does not yield results, try adding the city and state in which you reside to further refine results. Don’t forget to check the images that are attached to your name in the search results as well.

Use this as a way to show them that their digital footprint is very real, even for those who use the Internet casually. This activity is not meant to scare them, rather, to show them how transparent the Internet is — if they've participated in cyberbullying or written a nasty blog post, you — and millions of other people — will be able to find it. Parental control software is a great tool to help parents monitor the social networks and Internet destinations that their children use.

Can You Erase Your Digital Footprint?


If your Internet search yielded results, especially if questionable sites appeared, your next order of duty is online reputation management. While you may not be able to completely eradicate your digital footprint, there are definitely things you can do to reduce your current online presence.

The first thing you should do is make a list of all of the online accounts you know that you have, from online shopping and social media platforms to popular chat sites like Reddit. Once you have a list of accounts, sift through and delete any of the accounts you no longer use or deem unnecessary. If you find that you can’t delete an account, at least edit the information so that it doesn’t have any ties to your actual information.

If you’ve commented on blogs or web pages, you can contact the site owner directly — typically through the Contact Us or About Us tabs — and ask them to delete your comment and information from their site. Simply explain that you are trying to reduce your digital footprint and you’d appreciate their assistance. Most site owners shouldn’t take issue with your request, but you should know that they are not obligated to remove your information.

If you’ve been the victim of doxxing or found sensitive personal information about yourself on the Internet, you can contact Google to request that they remove your information.

How a Parental Control Software Can Help


Net Nanny’s Family Protection Pass can take the guesswork out of your child’s online behavior by allowing you to easily monitor the sites they visit and even the keywords they use to search online. Native device controls don’t have the capacity to screen as much as each family might need, though.

In addition to being able to screen the sites and apps your child is using, a parental control software like Net Nanny can give parents the ability to quickly and easily filter the Internet, monitor activity, or set alerts for when flagged sites, apps, and search terms are entered or used. Using a tool like this can help provide the pause teens and tweens need when managing their online reputation.

Download Our Social Media Contract


Agreeing on social media rules is an important step that families can take to inform, educate and guide their teens on responsible Internet usage. Download our Social Media Contract to use with your family.

Ultimately, the Internet is public, not private and that's the most important takeaway. Their digital footprint will never go away. Remind your teens to treat this as an opportunity to show the best parts of themselves, so if a college admissions officer does "stumble upon" their various profiles, they'll be one step ahead of the rest.

Managing your child’s digital footprint means having candid conversations about good digital citizenship and following proper social media etiquette. You cannot stress the importance of your child’s digital footprint enough, especially now that college admissions and employers routinely scan candidates’ digital behavior.

It’s never too early to begin cleaning up or reducing your digital footprint, which can be done by minimizing the number of online accounts you hold, as well as conducting periodic Internet searches under your name.

Jessica Thiefels

Jessica Thiefels

Jessica Thiefels has been writing for more than 10 years. She is currently a lifestyle and education blogger and the editor of Whooo's Reading and Carpe Daily. She's been featured on PBS.org, Home.com and FamilyEducation.com. When she's not writing or editing, she's trying new DIY projects around the house or training fitness clients. Follow her on Twitter @Jlsander07.