Do you know what a digital footprint is? Does your teen? The most important thing to know about a digital footprint is that it can have serious repercussions on any and all areas of your life, or your teen’s life. It can impact their academic standing, their college acceptance, their job prospects, their social life, their safety, and more.
As the parent of a teen, it’s up to you to teach them how to understand and protect their digital footprint.
What is a Digital Footprint?
Begin with the basics: what does the term “digital footprint” actually mean? Essentially, it’s the record of everything your teen has ever done or will do online. It’s the record of the websites they log into, the online games they play, the pictures they share on social media, the comments they make under news articles and on websites, the online classified ads they post, and anything else they do online.
The two biggest wrong assumptions that teens (and others) make about their online activity are assuming that anything is private and assuming that anything is ever really gone. Something like a teen uploading a photo, deciding a minute or so later that they don’t look good in that photo, and immediately deleting it can seem minor. Probably no one or not that many people saw it, and now it’s gone, right? Not necessarily – that photo could still be on the servers of the site the teen uploaded it to. And if anyone saw it and screenshotted it, they could do anything with that photo – share it, save it, even edit it. Nothing is ever fully private online, and nothing that’s put online is ever really completely gone. Keep that in mind as you learn more about digital footprints, and make sure that your teen understands it as well.
What Teens Can Do to Protect Their Digital Footprint
Obviously, your teen is going to have some type of digital footprint. They can’t avoid the internet entirely, and they probably wouldn’t want to even if they could. But they can minimize their chances of creating a digital footprint that will cause problems for them later.
For starters, make sure that your teen knows about privacy settings and why it’s important to look for them on all of the social media and websites they use. Not all websites make their privacy settings obvious, and some sites, like Facebook, are rather notorious for changing privacy settings without notifying users. So it’s important to check them regularly after setting them to make sure that nothing has changed. But most websites do have privacy settings that can be adjusted to make your teen’s sessions less public. Yes, your teen should never assume that anything is entirely private. But strong privacy settings still provide a better measure of protection than weak or no privacy settings.
It’s also important to talk to your teen about making responsible choices and being good digital citizens.
- They should avoid oversharing. If they’re going to share secrets, it’s usually better to do that offline than online. They should keep personal details private as much as possible – addresses, phone numbers, and what school they attend are all examples of information that shouldn’t be shared publicly.
- They should avoid posting photos or videos online that they wouldn’t be comfortable with a college admissions office, a boss, or their grandparents seeing – because you never know where those images can end up.
- They should make good choices about how they talk to and interact with others online. Threats, angry messages, name-calling, and so-on can be interpreted as cyberbullying. Even if your teen is responding to similar messages or has been otherwise provoked, their words could be taken out of context.
- Sharing inappropriate jokes or memes, especially if they are making fun of or causing harm to others (think racist or sexist material) can come back to haunt your teen. Even if they didn’t mean it or didn’t expect to be taken seriously, it will be taken seriously and can do serious damage. It’s important to teach your teen to avoid these kinds of actions online because it’s the right thing to do, but also for their own sake.
What Your Teen Can’t Do to Protect Their Digital Footprint
Teens also need to be aware of what’s out of their control. IP addresses, for example, are linked to specific devices and logged every time you visit a website. Your teen can’t change their IP address or erase the history of their device visiting a particular site – at least not without using a VPN.
Is this a problem? Probably not for most teens. School and university officials and employers may take a look at a teen’s social media profiles or use a search engine to see what pops up when they Google a teen’s name. But they’re not going to try to track a teen’s IP address. However, law enforcement has the means to track an IP address and will do so if they suspect a device, or the owner of a device, has been involved in something illegal, so that’s important to keep in mind. And hackers may be able to obtain an IP address and use it to trace a device’s activity or identify the person linked to that device, which could lead to anything from the release of embarrassing information to actual threats to physical safety.
While these things are out of your teen’s control, they can minimize any risk to themselves by being careful about where they go and what they do online, as well as by utilizing privacy settings, password protecting devices, and generally using good judgment.
You can help keep your teen safe online by using monitoring tools to ensure that you’re aware of any potential problems before they get out of control. To find out more about how parental monitoring software can help you protect your teen’s digital footprint, get our free trial