Teaching Your Children About Their Digital Footprint

Young people rarely consider the impact of their digital actions because they are not necessarily seen as separate from any other actions that they take.

Everything is digital in the world that are children are growing up in. Appointments, food and advice are all sourced in an online capacity and that is completely normal through their eyes. The level of digital exposure is so intense that when a parent asks a question about the online world it is met with eye-rolling and a plethora of sighs. It is frustrating for them because they cannot comprehend how someone wouldn’t be able to understand the modern digital world.

However, with this sense of normality comes a level of blasé. Young people rarely consider the impact of their digital actions because they are not necessarily seen as separate from any other actions that they take. It is simply the way they live their lives. We need to move away from this distinction between the ‘online’ world and the ‘real’ world: for many of us, not only young people, they are one and the same.

Have you ever heard a young person use the words “it’s deleted”? It is usually said with a sense of confidence that suggests that there is no need to give it another thought. Because deleted means that it has been erased entirely and can never be found again. This is quite a worrying thought because the reality is quite the opposite. Anything posted online cannot be deleted as easily or completely as we might think. Every comment, purchase and image sent has a permeant home in the online world, even after it has been deleted from a device. With this realization comes a new understanding of the word “delete”. You cannot see it, but someone can, somewhere on the internet.

It is extremely important that children understand the significance of their digital footprint. It has a huge number of emotional and safety implications. For example, if your child has participated in bullying (either as the bully or the bullied) there is a strong chance that devices or apps played a part. It may be a single comment, photograph or threat that was sent in the heat of the moment but had long-lasting impacts on another person’s mental (and sometimes physical) health. They can delete the comment and pretend it never happened but in a legal capacity these comments can be retrieved. Perhaps more importantly though, the effects of those actions can last a lifetime by damaging another person’s confidence and well-being. This may not be apparent at the time. It can also lead to a label that a child may carry with them for a lifetime. A simple screenshot of a once-off negative comment could deem your child a bully. These labels are very difficult to shake and can have a lasting effect on a young person’s future relationships, career and opportunities.

It is very common for young people to text each other in a sexual manner. In fact, Ireland has one of the highest rates of teen sexting in Europe. This is a very uncomfortable thought for a parent but in many cases, it is a conversation that needs to be had. Sally O’ Reilly Sally O'Reilly is an IAHIP, ICP and EAP accredited Counselling Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor and in a recent post shared that

“Irish teenagers were found to be among the fourth highest in the EU for sexting in a study carried out less than a year ago. The figures were presented at the 2016 Anti-Bullying Research Centre Conference, and my professional experience tells me that the 'real' figures are probably a lot higher.”

With “sexting” comes the possibility of explicit images and content being shared and in many cases peer pressure may play a part in this. Unfortunately, the nature of modern social media apps leads to a false sense of security when it comes to just how visible and traceable these “private” photographs and messages are. Young people may believe that this image was only seen by the intended party and that it was a one-time viewing scenario when the reality could be very different.

There are several ways to screenshot, record and save an image that may initially appear as a “disappearing” private message. It is vital that our children understand that these pictures can exist and be shared in a number of online places and the consequences can be extremely serious. A scary thought but one that needs to be addressed for everyone’s safety and well-being. It is worth remembering that a staggering 88% of self-generated explicit images eventually end up somewhere on the internet.

It is worth remembering that a staggering 88% of self-generated explicit images eventually end up somewhere on the internet

To add to this, our children are now using credit and debit cards to make online purchases, and, in many cases, it is without any consideration for the safety concerns associated. It is uncommon for a young person to worry about a bank account being hacked through an unsecure website or card details falling into the wrong hands. These innocent purchases for clothes, food and travel could have disastrous consequences for the card and bank account holder. Every single purchase and exchange has a digital footprint and it is essential that young people understand the huge responsibility that this entails if they are making an online purchase.

How Can Parents Teach Their Children About Their Digital Footprint?

1. Communication is key. Ensure to ask open ended questions about your child’s digital actions and the permanence of those decisions. They may not be aware that the internet “saves” these transactions and conversations regardless of the word delete.

2. Make bullying a normal topic of conversation as often as possible. Your child may not realize that a simple comment or WhatsApp group topic can be considered a form of bullying.

3. Supervise all online shopping. If you are allowing your child to use your bank card to make an online purchase you must ensure that they are using a trusted website with appropriate safety measures in place when it comes to private information and card details.

4. Try to encourage in-person experiences within the family so that social media and the online world do not replace meaningful connections with places and people.

5. Where possible monitor screen time use and impose parental controls where appropriate.

6. Google yourself! Would you be happy or proud of your digital footprint if others did the same?

7. Encourage long-term thinking. According to a Career Builder study in 2018, 40% of managers reject candidates based on content they have found posted online: short-term decisions online can have real-life consequences to education and career prospects offline.

This content has been checked and certified by Cyber Safe Ireland whose mission is to empower children, parents and teachers to navigate the online world in a stronger, smarter and safer way.

Tracey Quinn

Proud mum of two who got married on Don't Tell The Bride and had an accidental home-birth (loves a good story). She's passionate about breastfeeding, positive thinking & all things cosy.

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