“Don’t wait—relate.” How to talk with your kids about their digital footprint
Most parents wait until the teen years, but research shows more kids are using social media even before then. Here’s how to get the conversation started.
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Do you remember the first thing you posted online? Maybe you created a Geocities website, kept a blog on LiveJournal or posted photos on Flickr. Back in the early 2000s, posting online felt like a specific thing you did when you wanted to. Today’s children live in a different era, where posting online feels less like a distinct action and more like a taken-for-granted way of interacting with others.
What is a digital footprint?
Whether we do it consciously or not, all that posting—from silly photos and videos on social media to blog posts about family memories—accumulates to form our digital footprint. That loose collection of information about us scattered across the web may be intended for friends and family, but it’s often accessible by anyone. People form judgments and make decisions about us based on our digital footprint. So how can parents help children navigate the implications of having one? By following the mantra “Don’t wait—relate.”
Why is it important to teach children about their digital footprint?
I’m a writer and researcher who has studied the intersection of families, technology use and privacy for nearly a decade. Like many experts, I advocate that parents regularly talk about technology with their children, especially when it comes to digital footprints. Children value guidance from trusted adults like parents and teachers, even if they don’t always show it. For example, with a team of researchers from the University of Maryland and Princeton University, I led a study on children and technology use and found that adults can be hesitant about discussing technology topics, especially social media, with children, thinking that such discussions are more important for teens.
I get it—social media is linked to many challenges, from mental health concerns to misinformation, and few people want to burden children with such weighty topics. But social media use starts earlier than people realize. Nearly half of parents with children between the ages of 10 and 12 said their kids used social media apps, according to a survey. While few children under 8 use social media, the digital footprints of many accumulate as the people in their lives—relatives, teachers, day care providers—post about them online. Which means that parents could start talking about how these footprints form even when their kids are young.
Here are some tips for getting those conversations going, whether you have toddlers, teens or kids in between.
How to talk with children about their digital footprint
At this stage, children are starting to develop their sense of self and recognize their existence as an individual in the world. The idea of a digital footprint affecting their future self is too abstract to grasp. However, parents can still help their children understand what digital footprints are and how they form. Start with your photo-sharing habits, since your posts contribute to their digital footprints. Make it a routine to check with children before you share a photo of them with friends, family or online. This helps you be more mindful of the digital footprint you’re creating for your child, and it helps your child see what appropriate and respectful posting looks like. Remember, don’t wait because you think your child might not comprehend the concept; relate the concept to their current experiences.
Start talking about this process with them early, and involve them in your posting decisions.
Try this: When you take a picture of your child, show it to them and ask them how they feel about it. Explain that you want to send the picture to someone, or that you might want to post it on a site where all your friends can see it online, and ask if they’re OK with that. Most importantly, listen to your child. If they don’t want you to post it, respect their wishes. This will help them develop a sense of agency over their own digital footprint, seeing it as something they can actively shape.
At this stage, children may express interest in joining social media. Most platforms do not allow users under age 13. Each parent needs to decide what’s best for their child, but even if you don’t want your child setting up an account just yet, don’t wait to discuss social media with them. Instead, relate to their interest in social media and ask open-ended questions to gauge their motives for wanting (or not) to join.
Try this: If your child wants to sign up for a given platform, ask them why. What kinds of things would they like to post or do? Try to put yourself in their shoes—remember that what seems boring or unproductive to you might be fun and exciting for them. If your child has social media accounts, use privacy settings to limit the visibility of information, especially as they are first starting to post. Review their accounts and have a conversation with them about how to make decisions on what to post. What makes something worthy of posting? It’s important that these questions come from a place of curiosity, rather than judgment. If children sense that you’re trying to correct them, they may disengage. But if the conversation is genuine, chances are you’ll both walk away having learned something.
Teens have a complicated relationship with social media. These spaces allow for more connections but can also leave them feeling overwhelmed, according to a Pew Research Center survey. And as teens apply for jobs or college, their digital presence could help or hinder their chances for success. That said, don’t wait until a problem arises to discuss their digital footprint; relate to them as if they were experts in teen culture (which they are, since they’re living it), but make sure they know you’re there to help them when challenges arise.
Try this: Teens are beginning to figure out what kind of role they want to play in the world, so use current events to initiate conversations. If you hear about a new social media trend or challenge, ask if they can explain it to you. As they describe their goals for the future, ask them how their digital presence could help them get there. The more you discuss the positive aspects of social media use, the more likely they’ll be to seek your advice about how to handle the negative aspects.
Too often, adults regard social media as frivolous or alarming. But it, and the digital footprints that people create while using it, are an established part of everyday life. Accepting that fact can make conversations about digital footprints just a routine part of raising kids, rather than a task to put off for the future.
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