How to Avoid a Bad Digital Footprint on Social Media

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Teach your kids to follow these three tenants to good digital citizenship to avoid a bad digital footprint and manage a positive online reputation. 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 a digital footprint. Do you know your digital footprint an accurate representation of you? Is your child's? 

Learn how Zift can help.

What is a Digital Footprint?

Simply put, your digital footprint is a trail of data linked to your online presence. 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.

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.   

Why Good Digital Citizenship is Important for Kids

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!

Not only are friends and school administrators looking at posts that you and your child may make, college admissions officers and future employers see the posts as well. And 70% of employers say they make judgments about those posts, potentially at a cost to you.

The cost of poor social media etiquette is obvious when one is the victim of such bad behavior but can also follow the perpetrators. Take, for example, the teens who had their admission offers rescinded because of their behavior in a Facebook group for newly admitted students.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 the 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.  

Let’s look at a few ways that kids can avoid a future lapse in judgment which could affect their digital footprint negatively.  

  1. Bad behavior is more than just curse words.
    Perhaps it has occurred to you and your family that dropping the “f-bomb” or calling someone a “you know what” is a terrible idea on social media. Negative posts go far beyond the swear words and off-color language.  
    Even references to a swear word or an insulting emoji can be cause for judgement from the outside world. College and career admissions officers wonder about a person’s character upon reviewing applications and sometimes browsing social media can give them a heads up to an applicant’s stability.   
    Rude and insensitive comments, sexual innuendos, online bullying, even without the expletives, gives one cause to pause. And certainly, pictures and references alluding to, or directly referring to, drug and alcohol use is a big red flag. The picture and post may just prompt them to go on to the next applicant. And the words of the principal harken, “It’s in your permanent file!”
  2. Resist the “Sorry Not Sorry” attitude.
    Most of us will have an opportunity in life to make an amend. We are not perfect and sometimes we (or our kids) get caught up in the moment, join the crowd, or just make a stupid mistake. Rather than defending our actions as to why what we said or did was “Just kidding- JK- LOL,” “wasn’t my fault,” “I didn’t say it,” or “you just don’t understand,” we might try one of these simple responses:

    “I’ll take down the post.”
    “I am very sorry that what I said hurt you.”
    “I see your point.”
    “You’re right.”

    This is a simple beginning to an amend, but it does not end here. A true amend means taking responsibility and then making a change. In the event of an insensitive or offensive post or picture, you should heartfully apologize to the offended party in person and then post the apology online with insight as to why such a post was inappropriate. And then take down the original post. Not only might this reaction preserve your public reputation, it will more importantly help heal a wound experienced by someone who was victimized. 
  3. Think before you hit send.
    Think before you speak, act, tweet, snap or Instagram something that you would regret or would embarrass you or someone else. If your remarks are a retort to someone else’s impulse, compose your remarks offline, rehearse it with a friend and then try and have a face-to-face conversation. 
    Model this discipline for your children (and perhaps for many adults around you). Consider that social media is not the best platform in which to have serious discussions or announcements. 
    And then use the tried and true test — “could my grandmother read my post or be in this conversation with me without offending her?” And if Grandma doesn’t give you the “TTYN” (talk to you never) on her social media account, then maybe you’re doing all right.

How to Trace Your Digital Footprint

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’ve 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. 

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 owners directly -- typically through the Contact Us or About Us tab -- 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 App Can Help

A parental control app 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 app like Zift can give parents the ability to quickly and easily monitor activity from a dashboard, or set alerts for when flagged sites, apps, and search terms are entered or used on your child’s device. Using a tool like this can help provide the pause teens and tweens need when managing their online reputation.

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.

Download a copy of our Social Media Contract for Tweens & Teens.

About Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD

Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD is a psychotherapist in Southern California with private practices in Santa Monica and Malibu. She helps parents, children, couples and individuals. A graduate of UCLA and Fuller School of Psychology, Dr. Miller also is involved in school-based education and consultation, an adjunct faculty member of the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Psychology, a wife, mother, and stepmother. 

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