Teaching Children About Digital Footprints

As we have introduced a 1:1 netbook program in grade four at my school, we are focussing on helping the students learn how to use their new devices to their full potential.

We have been doing some work on internet safety, and this week have been looking at digital footprints.

Not one of the 54 students in my double class knew what the term meant before we delved deeper.

Wikipedia describes a digital footprint as:

“…a trail left by interactions in a digital environment; including the use of TV, mobile phone, the internet and other devices and sensors.”

Unfortunately, I’ve come across a number of resources which only focus on the negatives of digital footprints and promote a culture of fear.

The message I like to promote is that we should protect our digital footprints and try to ensure that they are positive. Encouraging students to avoid posting or doing anything online just seems counter productive.

I’ve often wondered if having no digital footprint at all is almost as bad as having a negative one. This is something Chris Betcher has written about before.

Four years ago Chris said:

“I can see a day in the not too distant future … where your ‘digital footprint’ will carry far more weight than anything you might include in a resume or CV.”

Perhaps that day has come?


Alarmingly, even government sites like the Victorian Better Health channel begins their article on internet safety with a scary image of the term digital footprint:

“The Internet can be a dangerous place for the unwary, particularly children. A person’s ‘digital footprint’ can be as easy to follow as their real footprints.

I’m not denying that the internet can be a dangerous place, but so can the street. The internet can also be a wonderful place and this shouldn’t be forgotten.

I think it’s important to ensure a balance by teaching about the dangers of a negative or revealing digital footprint, while also promoting the benefits of a positive digital footprint.

The Age of Candid Camera

I’m sure I’m not the only one who cringes when I see teachers creating digital footprints that could be harmful to their own reputation (eg. on Facebook). Perhaps underestimating the public nature of the internet is a widespread problem.

Another scenario that I’ve observed fairly regularly is teachers not having a digital footprint at all. These issues are worrisome to me when thinking about the need for digital footprints to be discussed in classrooms.

If this article is to be believed, 92% of children under two already have a digital footprint. I think this shows how important education around digital footprints is.

So what do students need to know about digital footprints?

  • the internet is a public space with a large audience
  • digital footprints can be searched or shared
  • once online, things can be there forever
  • you should always think before you post online
  • you should keep certain personal details private
  • individuals can take control of their digital footprints
  • digital footprints can be helpful or harmful to reputations

Resources for teaching about digital footprints:

Do you have any thoughts on teaching about digital footprints?

Please leave a comment and share your advice, resources or thoughts!

Image attributions: The Age of Candid Camera; Footprints (by-nc-sa)

51 thoughts on “Teaching Children About Digital Footprints

  1. The Common Sense materials are great, aren’t they! This year I signed my class up for the Digital Passport by Common Sense Media. It is a series of lessons you can work at to your own pace but approximately 4 hours total. We started in school. Many students opted to continue at home. We thought it excellent.

    • Hi Lindy,

      I only discovered the Common Sense materials this year and I’m glad I did. The Digital Passport resource sounds great. I will check it out now. Thanks for the tip!


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  3. Great article about how having a positive, encouraging, and present digital footprint will help our young people. I think the time has come where the resume is less important and a twitter feed and interactions on it is more important to prospective employers. Teenagers think “Employers won’t look at my facebook status updates and twitter feed from when I was a teenager.” I think that couldn’t be further from the truth. Teaching our young people to make their words, actions, and photos consistent between their online life and their real life is what is most important. Helping young people create a positive, uplifting digital footprint now so that when someone goes looking for them online, and someone will, what is found is worthwhile and positive.

    • Hi Carla,

      Those are excellent thoughts. Even though my students are in grade four, they were very surprised when I told them someone might be looking at their digital footprints from now when they are trying to get a job in the future!

      This is definitely something that needs to be discussed more often.


  4. Awesome blog post! It is so important that we find the time to educate our students about digital citizenship. Too many times students don’t realize the importance of the digital footprint that they are building right now. We need to educate and help them build their brand on a solid foundation. I love teaching digital citizenship to our students and am glad that we are doing it K-12. Always a pleasure reading your material Kathleen! Keep up the great work!

    • @mrbadura,

      I agree that too many students (and adults) don’t realise the importance of digital footprints. Sounds like you’re doing a great job educating your students in this area!


  5. Hi. What a thought provoking post. I really like the Seth Godin quote. I will be sharing it with my 5/6s. I’ll also be checking out your suggested resources.
    We have used an eSmart resource ‘eBuddies’ for considering safe use of online resources with our students. It is free and has been developed by the Alannah and Madeline Foundation.The children respond to questions and receive parts to build an ‘ebuddie’ robot. It presents safety messages in quite a balanced way and always leads to interesting conversations about misconceptions the children and adults have had. I am looking forward to hearing more of your 1:1 adventure of discovery. 🙂

  6. Great point about digital footprints being a positive means to extend your reputation. So much of what we hear focuses on the inherent dangers and privacy issues around a digital presence online. Although important, we need to balance this and help kids and teachers learn that a digital footprint can be a positive. This might also help address the worrying issue of people totally avoiding leaving a digital footprint out of fear. We need to help people realise that the Internet is not going away; it’s a part of life and putting your head in the sand long term and failing to address the issue does far more harm long term.

    • Hi Kerron,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      It really is a worrying issue that people don’t create a digital footprint. I think it’s either fear, or lack of understanding that an online presence is important. Hopefully this message will spread!


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  8. Kathleen, this is a wonderful post on a topic I’m very interested in and wish all educators were invested in. I think letting kids know that social media background checks up to 7 years in the past are legal (http://internet-safety.yoursphere.com/2011/07/the-social-media-background-check/) is one way to encourage them to let their digital footprints work for them instead of against them.

    I’ve posted a few thoughts on this topic, including ideas that can be used with teachers and students. Links are below.

    Trying to Ban Facebook Is Not the Answer

    Supporting Teachers & Students in the Curation of Their Digital Footprint

    A favorite quote of mine from Will Richardson: “How can you make sure that every student who walks on graduation day is WELL GOOGLED by his or her full name?” (http://pinterest.com/pin/12666442673778377/)

    Thank you again for posting on this important topic! I’ve added your post to my Digital Citizenship collections on ScoopIt and Pinterest.

    • Hi Sandy,

      Thanks so much for your wonderful comment with so many fabulous links and resources!

      That really is a fabulous comment by Will Richardson. I find his work so inspiring.

      I read the article about legal social media checks with interest. I assuming this article is American so am wondering what the legalities would be here in Australia?

      I look forward to adding all your links to my Diigo!


      • Kathleen, I’m glad you like the links I posted. Sorry I didn’t clarify on the background check article being from the U.S. I, too, wonder what the rules/laws are in different countries.

        I think it’s important to know those laws, but to also realize that people who want to know more about you are going to Google you whether they are supposed to or not.

        Here’s to continuing to educate everyone on making their digital footprint work for them and not against them!

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the link to the YouTube video. Looks like a good conversation starter. Perhaps the creator might even update it soon. That would be good.


  9. Thanks for sharing this, Kathleen.

    Here is a positive view of “digital footprint” that I recently came across while giving a workshop to students and teachers: “Wake Forest University Admissions Dean Martha Allman says her younger staffers like to see (an applicant’s) “digital personality.”
    This comes from USA Today 9/22/2011 in an article about Colleges looking at Facebook profiles. Article: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/story/2011-09-21/facebook-google-college-applicants/50497248/1

    They aren’t always looking for something negative. Quite often they are hoping to find something great like an art student’s portfolio or a blog or something tangible that showcases great work/potential.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for sharing this article about digital footprints/personality. It’s great to see something positive and to have a real life example!


  10. Great article! I devoted an entire book to this subject: Digital Leader. It reviews the pitfalls of today’s digital world, but primarily focuses on 5 keys to creating a positive Digital Legacy. Digital Legacy = Digital Footprints + Digital Shadows. Note that your digital legacy is used today as well as 300 years from now.

    Digital Footprints are what you upload about yourself, whereas Digital Shadows are what others upload about you. Together they are your imprint on this world, so use them to get hired vs. fired.

    Thanks for the great post as it’s a subject near and dear to my heart. The book has already been translated into Spanish and Chinese.

    Erik Qualman
    #1 International Best Selling Author

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  12. Kathleen
    I am completing my final year of BEd Primary through USQ. As part of our assessment we are to curate a publicly accessible collection of online resources relevant to the classroom implementation of technology education in the Australian context. This project is also intended to support me in achieving active personal/professional learning networks (PLN) and establishing a positive professional presence on the World Wide Web. This activity will also establish my own positive Digital Footprint as a future educator.
    It was suggested that the establishment of a blog was an effective method for curating and sharing this collection of resources. For my first blogging experience I elected to use edublogs, which I am steadily learning to navigate.
    I found your blog on Digital Footprints very informative, as this topic was raised by the lecturer in the first week of the semester. I believe it is a topic which should be discussed with students so they know about and understand the positive and negative impacts of their own Digital Footprints. As you indicated most are not aware of what a Digital Footprint may be prior to discussing the topic with them.
    I enjoyed reading your insightful blog and have referenced it in the first of my posts @

    • Hi Theresa,

      Thanks for referencing my article! I’m so glad to hear you’re talking about digital footprints at uni. Sounds like a great course.

      Good luck with your studies!

  13. Thanks for writing about the importance of leaving a positive digital trail. I used to be reluctant to step out in this digital world because of all the attention to the negative side of it. Having come into the education field now, I realize the scope of this territory and also how much kids are engaged in this world. The permanency nature of this trail is hard for many kids (sometimes, even for adults) to grasp and remember at all times. But, educating them can definitely help. Thanks for sharing all these resource here!

    • Hi there,

      So great that you’re no longer reluctant and realise the scope that technology offers. I hope the resources help in your classroom!


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  19. Kathleen,
    I want to commend you for you committment to having a dialogue with parents and educating them as well. I have just started a website in my classroom and am still learning as I go. Eventually, thanks to reading your post, I think creating blog opportunities to parents will be useful. I didn’t realize that even in the impoverished community I teach, most of them have computers and have been letting their child go onto our website bergstrojans.com and have been active in allowing their children to benefit at home from the site. Keep it up and know that you are an inspiration to teaching.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks so much for your kind words!

      You’re right that it’s very common to have tech access these days. From my observations it doesn’t seem to be limited by financial situations anywhere near as much as it used to be.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on our class blog too!


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  21. Hi Kathleen,
    Thanks for a great blog post. In the three years I’ve been in the role of teacher librarian/information literacy specialist at a primary school in Melbourne, I’ve changed my approach when helping kids to uncover the idea of what a digital footprint is. I’m happy to say that I’m now approaching it from a positive point of view, as you mention.
    I love CommonSense Media-such a treasure trove of information! As one teacher said, just get in their car and drive.

    • Hi Beth,

      Your librarian/info literacy specialist role sounds fabulous! I wish all schools had someone like that. CommonSense Media really does have some great resources – I’m so happy I discovered it, like you.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment,

  22. Thank you so much for the resources! Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of a “digital footprint” I really want to focus on the positive aspects as I help my students set up their blogs next year. My students will be all over Common Sense Media’s Trillion Dollar Footprint exercise. Great thoughts. Thanks!!

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  27. I think that the concept discussed here is one of so much value. I am currently working on iPads with preschool children and they are so incredibly aware of how to use them already. I open an app and they are shouting out the names of some of their favorites. If technology is as prevalent as it already is and will continue to be in their lives, I think the importance of teaching children the benefits as well as draw backs is so important. Children are frequently warned about the dangers but like you said, this can also be viewed in a positive light. We should be taking this immense knowledge that the children have and the strong interest that they take in such technologies and fostering it into creating something positive. It is definitely important to leave our mark and with their knowledge at such a young age, they can do such amazing things as long as they have the proper precautions.

  28. I think this is a great article. I also thought of the words “digital footprint” as only being negative, but the article makes some great points about leaving a positive reminder behind about yourself.

  29. The net is a scary place and care must be given to what you post. And if you are positive and post that which helps and uplifts we have a chance to change the web envirment.

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