Those of us who work with young people – including teachers, coaches, and parents – understand that this generation is quite different. Most commonly known as Generation Z, the students in our charge are the first generation in history with a digital footprint from birth.
Today’s students have grown up with technology. From their first handheld video game to their ever-present smartphone, they have never known a world without a screen somewhere in sight. Current studies indicate that today’s youth receive their first smartphone at approximately age 10. From there, it’s a race toward an always-on, always-connected life – more than half have social media accounts by the time they are 12.
For the adults in their lives, keeping up with these digital natives can be a daunting task. Still, if we are to be responsible guides in this ever-connected world, we must teach students about their digital footprint.
No matter where we travel online, we leave behind a digital footprint. This digital footprint includes both passive and active data trails. Passive data trails are simply a record of websites you visit, based on your computer’s IP address. While this type of data does not include your personal information, it does identify your computer. Active data trails stem from your intentional interaction with digital media, including sending emails and posting comments on websites.
Anything that you do online becomes a permanent part of your digital footprint. This includes conversations during an online game, using a search engine, and any activity you have on social media. Some social media platforms promise that your activity will “disappear” or be “deleted.” However, thanks to the nature of a digital footprint, that’s not exactly true.
For this reason, we must teach students to consider two major issues as they pertain to their digital activity – scope and permanence.
You might be familiar with the phrase, “the long arm of the law.” As long as that might be, it has nothing on the incredible reach of the Internet. Just think of all the viral content circulating online on any given day. Virtually everyone has a smartphone, and anything can be captured and sent to anyone, anywhere, at any time. It does not matter if you delete a post or email. It’s possible someone has already saved it on their device. Even the vanishing photos touted by Snapchat can be screenshotted and saved easily.
Students often share digitally with a single thought driving their decision: “My friends will think this is hilarious.” They aren’t thinking about anything beyond that moment. They don’t truly understand the concept of just how far their online activity will surely reach – its scope. Most think that their immediate friends or social media followers will be the only viewers of their activity. This is absolutely a falsehood, even for a “private” account. When presenting, I stress to students that if popular videos can go viral, so can anything they post online. Often those viral videos can shine a light on a wonderful act of kindness, and that is absolutely the upside of social media. But social media can also be just as powerful at spreading a cruel or embarrassing post that reaches tens, hundreds, or even thousands.
There is a post that circulates on social media from time to time that reads, “I’m glad I grew up in (insert your decade here). I did so much stupid stuff and there is no record of it anywhere!” For those of us who grew up in the 70s, 80s, and the early 90s, this certainly rings true. As adults, most of us certainly made our share of mistakes during our adolescence and early adulthood. For the most part, those mistakes have faded along with our memories.
But how many of us would cringe if others could simply look up evidence of those mistakes through a simple internet search? Thanks to digital footprints, this is reality for today’s students – the permanence of their indiscretions and mistakes. Such errors in judgment can be far-reaching. Up to a quarter of college admissions officers examine prospective students’ social media accounts. Many colleges base decisions regarding admittance on questionable behavior found online. And colleges aren’t alone in this trend. Seventy percent (70%) of employers screen potential job candidates via their social media accounts.
It’s difficult for students to think that far into the future, but the reality is that these things are happening every day. When I started my journey with reACT to Bullying three years ago, I told students then that in the future, there would be a very easy way for others to make a simple search of online activity. That future has certainly come to pass. Hitting delete absolutely will not make what you sent or posted go away. Closed accounts don’t ensure that your activity has disappeared. Truly, the Internet is forever.
Managing Your Digital Reputation
Not so long ago, your reputation was limited to what those in your personal acquaintance thought of you. From that vantage point, your reputation spread based on what others said. To a certain extent, you could do some damage control if your reputation wasn’t the best. But there was always an opportunity for a clean slate somewhere, somehow. Not so with today’s digital reputations. More than 90% of people trust what they find in an internet search, so if it isn’t flattering, it can affect you profoundly.
As adults, we must continue to teach students about the scope and permanence of what they post online. They may not understand the importance of their digital reputation now, but in the future, they will either regret or rejoice in what their digital footprint says about them.