Digital Footprints: Helping Kids Develop Responsible Online Habits

When we teach kids about digital citizenship, one key concept we keep returning to is that of a “digital footprint.” Digital footprints are the trails of data we leave behind as we engage in online activities.

A couple of times in the last year, I have heard TVS students mention that they like a particular app – Snapchat — because it does not leave any trail. This week, I read with interest and dismay various news stories about the illegal release of tens of thousands of private photos gathered from unsuspecting Snapchat users.

For those of you unfamiliar with this app, Snapchat markets itself as a program that allows you to send pictures to other users – and these pictures then disappear “forever” within seconds, leaving no trace. Because of this signature feature, Snapchat has attracted a devoted teenage following. This story is a dark (but not surprising) reminder that internet behavior has a way of sticking around – we all leave “digital footprints.”

This is not a letter warning against Snapchat or any other specific application (though I have been known to write such letters when I see a pressing community need, including this spotlight on Ask.FM last year).

Rather my message is this: Apps come and go, but good digital habits can outlast them all. These habits provide an extra layer of protection and will help empower students to use technology as a powerful tool for learning and for interacting positively with others. But just because our students are comfortable using technology does not mean they have internalized the skills they need to use technology well. As I’ve said before, just as we don’t give our car keys to 12-year-olds and say, “Have fun!” we should not assume that our kids know all of the online “rules of the road.”

When we created the Responsible Use Policy (RUP) this year, we made a deliberate decision to focus more on “DO’s” than on “DON’Ts.” Our children need guidance as they navigate digital social spaces; they need regular conversations with parents and teachers; they need safe places to take their questions and concerns; they need to know our expectations for digital citizenship; and sometimes they need help when they make mistakes or stumble upon something upsetting.

It is our hope that the RUP will serve as a resource for all adults in the TVS community – parents as well as teachers. To that end, at various points throughout the year, I’ll spotlight key ideas in our Responsible Use Policy. For now, let me start with three passages.

  • In the Middle School, we strive to live by the following motto: “We leave a place better than we found it.” This extends to our actions in digital spaces. Shared expectations can be powerful motivators. As you talk about expectations for digital behavior, lean on this and on your family’s core values (for example: “In this family, we don’t use language like that”; or “More than anything, we expect you to treat others with kindness”). While kids will test limits and stumble from time to time, these values will provide a compass that they can return to again and again for guidance.
  • When I use any technology, I will respect the privacy and dignity of every member of the school community when I post online, text, email, and use other forms of social media. With your kids, emphasize that we should never share photos, contact information, or personal details about others without explicit permission – and even then we need to be careful and thoughtful. Over and over again, I see kids who truly believe that what they post to social media is in some type of protective bubble – a cloak of invisibility! Ask them questions about what social media sites they are using, how they are using them, and how they are controlling their privacy settings. In this passage, we have used the word “dignity” deliberately. This is a powerful word, one that we are exploring in our advisory program this year. Dignity refers to the inherent value of every human being. Here’s the take-away for kids: Posting rude remarks or sending hurtful texts not only harms the recipient; these actions reflect badly on the sender. The sender is broadcasting loud and clear that they do not treat others with dignity. That becomes part of his or her “footprint.” Now think of the powerful message we send to our community with we use digital interactions to show respect for others and enthusiasm for their efforts and accomplishments.
  • When I use any technology, I will help maintain a safe digital environment for everyone. If I see a message, comment, image, or anything else online that makes me feel concerned for my safety or the wellbeing of another student (for example: threats or insults), I will immediately bring it to the attention of a teacher or administrator. Here’s one advantage of maintaining an open and on-going conversation with your children about their digital behavior: you provide them with regular “space” to share questions or concerns they may have about something they have seen online. I am so proud of the students who have reached out to their parents and teachers when they have come across an alarming post, text, or message. This takes courage. We need to take their concerns seriously – sometimes they need a listening ear as they figure out how to respond, but sometimes they need us to intervene more directly because it’s too big for their shoulders. If you are unsure of how to respond to any such situation, please reach out to your network of support, including me, our dean of students, your child’s advisor, or the school counselors. We need to send the message over and over again that students live within a community of caring, capable, and committed adults.

With your help, the RUP can become vibrant tool that will help us nurture ethical digital citizens. Thanks you for being our partner in this effort!

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