Address Digital Footprints: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Uncover ways to empower your students to create a positive digital footprint.

Grades K-12 11 min Resource by:
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Technology is becoming a prominent part of our personal, academic, and professional lives. This can be good, bad, or ugly depending on how we use it. As teachers, we want to appropriately prepare students for their careers and future. A big part of our students’ lives—and probably our own, too—is their relationship with technology and the digital footprint they are leaving behind and how that footprint will impact their life currently and in the future. One way to think of a digital footprint is the data that accumulates about you online or that you share online.

Often in education, we only talk about the bad and ugly technology practices that students are using, and we are constantly using the word “no” or “don’t” with them. If we continue to promote a culture of “no” and “don’t,” we will not help students develop the good online practices that they will need to thrive in our society. They will not understand or have the opportunity to experience the good that can come from having a positive online presence.

The Good

We know that the choices our students make today will shape their future and could possibly have long-lasting effects—positively or negatively—on their lives. That is why it is so important for us, as educators, to provide many opportunities for students to create positive digital footprints and empower them to continue to make good choices when they are on their own. Just like in this article, we do want to acknowledge and ensure that students are aware of the bad and ugly things that can happen as a result of negative digital footprints. However, our main focus should be on the good and how to amplify their amazing, positive selves. Below are a few strategies that you can use to help students engage in understanding and creating positive digital footprints:

  • Share examples with students of individuals who have created a positive online image and positive digital footprints.
  • Provide students with opportunities to create and post things that they are proud of to help promote themselves positively online. Consider the options below as possible activities for students.
    • Encourage students to create and post digital portfolios of their work.
    • Guide students through creating and sharing their digital eBinder.
      • The AVID eBinders site offers an eBinder template for you and your students to download as a starting point.
    • Create and post educational and positive YouTube videos, Instructables, podcasts, etc.
    • Share and allow students opportunities to practice the following five questions they should ask themselves before posting anything online:
      1. Is what I am posting true?
      2. Is what I am posting helpful?
      3. Is what I am posting inspiring?
      4. Is what I am posting necessary? Will it make the world better?
      5. Is what I am posting kind?

Digital Footprint

  • For younger (and even older) students, you can develop understanding and have positive conversations around digital footprints using picture books. Below are some great picture books to help students develop their understanding around digital citizenship and what a digital footprint is:
    • The Technology Tail: A Digital Footprint Story written by Julia Cook and illustrated by Anita DuFalla
    • Building a Digital Footprint written by Adrienne Matteson and illustrated by Rachael McLean
    • Chicken Clicking written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross
    • Nerdy Birdy Tweets written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Matt Davies
  • Communicate and collaborate with parents/guardians. It is important to create opportunities to involve them in the discussion of digital citizenship and specifically their child’s digital footprint. Work collaboratively to develop strategies around technology use that can be used at home and at school and create a common language. Make sure to focus on the positive aspects of their child’s digital life as well as the possible negative ones. Consider raising the topic with parents/guardians during a community forum or even during conferences. Many districts have shown the movies Screenagers or Screenagers Next Chapter, with guided discussions following the showing. These movies tend to focus on the “bad” and the “ugly” parts of digital footprints, so make sure to provide a balanced perspective with additional positive examples. Make sure that both parents/guardians and students understand how colleges and workplaces investigate the digital footprint of their potential students and/or employees in order to make decisions around admission and hiring. In many cases, having no online presence at all has the same outcome as having a negative online presence. It is very important that you, parents/guardians, and your students are all working together to help students create a positive online presence.

The Bad

It is inevitable that students are going to make mistakes, and this is also true when students are using technology. When students do make a mistake, saying something like, “That is so terrible,” does not help students learn and grow. We need to empower them to be able to clean up their mistakes if, and more likely when, they are made. When we talk about a student’s digital footprint as something scary and horrible, that doesn’t help them learn how to use technology to empower themselves or how to deal with it when they make a mistake. We need to prepare students for as many situations as possible, so when they are on their own, they cannot only handle it, but thrive.

One way to help our students learn how to “clean up” their digital footprint is to teach them how to self-evaluate their own technology use, especially outside of school. Before having students look at their own, as a class you might choose a famous person and look through that person’s Twitter tweets, Instagram posts, etc. As a group, discuss the impression of the person based on what they have posted. What kind of image is the person portraying online? What does their digital footprint say about them? If their digital footprint is saying something negative, how might they change it? After trying it as a group, students can work as teams and look at another famous person and answer the same questions. Finally, have students independently look at their own digital footprint. Even if they are not posting updates themselves, it is very likely that there are still things posted about them.

It is important to emphasize with students how to create a positive digital footprint. If you put value and importance on a student’s digital footprint, then they will put value on it. It will become something that matters. As you begin to help students create and practice a positive digital footprint, start small. Have students focus on one or two specific skills at a time. Give students time to look at each other’s digital footprint and discuss the impression that it gives. Continually ask students if they are representing themselves in a positive way. Continually ask them, “How might the way you are being represented impact your future?”

The Ugly

While we need to focus on helping students create and practice a positive digital footprint, there are instances where a student’s online posts, or posts online about them, can lead to negative consequences. In conversations about digital citizenship, it is critical to make students aware of the ugly things that can happen and how to prevent them, as well. We must teach students, in collaboration with their parents/guardians, the following:

  • Why it is important to not post private information online
  • How to use privacy settings and how these settings impact the information they are sharing
  • How to check privacy policies to be aware of how their personal information may be shared
  • What to do if someone steals their identity
  • What to do if they are being cyberbullied
  • What the laws are around digital citizenship

You aren’t going to be able to teach all of these concepts at once. Some of these concepts are more appropriate for certain ages than they are for others. That said, it is important to teach digital citizenship at all grade levels and to provide opportunities for students to make mistakes under the watchful guidance of their teacher, rather than waiting until they are on their own, where the consequences may be much worse and more permanent.

There are many resources available to support you and the parents/guardians of your students. Common Sense Education has curriculum and lessons available for free. In addition, they have resources developed specifically for parents/guardians, as well. The following are several of the family tip sheets from Common Sense Education that focus on Digital Footprint and Identity, as well as Privacy and Security: