Digital Footprints and Cyber Safety. What can schools do?

Maddison Wallmeyer

How much do students know about their digital footprint and how to handle cyberbullying?

As a young teen, I remember being yelled at by my mum for posting something with my sister and cousin online that seemed innocent at the time but was deemed inappropriate by our parents. It was not until I was out of high school that I realised what ignited such a reaction from her. At the (digital) old age of 21, I vaguely discovered what a digital footprint was and how to create a positive, professional one to help with my future. As a now pre-service teacher, living in a world dominated by digital devices and technology, I ponder how much students actually know about the digital world they live in. Young people these days are brilliant minded, with their ability to do all kinds of things with technology at such young ages. Considering this, there is an ongoing concern for their ability to consider long-term consequences of their participation online and to cope with the increase risk of cyberbullying. At the age of 21, my digital footprint would have been so large without me even knowing. Is it too late at that age to start to create a positive digital footprint? If so, how much do students actually know about this?

First: What do I mean by digital footprint? Your digital footprint is the trail of data you create while using the internet (TechTerms, 2020). A passive footprint is all of the unintentional data you create, including when you visit a website. An active footprint is the data you intentionally submit online such as sending an email, posting a photo on Facebook and publishing a blog. The more time you spend social networking, the bigger your digital footprint will become (2020).

What does the research say?

Kids nowadays, on average are a little under 8 years old when they begin using the internet (Buchanan, 2016). At this time, most go online daily with younger children (9–13) using it for predominantly gaming, while older children (13+) use it for social interaction (Buchanan, Southgate, Smith, Murray & Noble, 2017). The main concern is that at a young age, children do not have the cognitive development to understand the longevity of what they put online (Buchanan, 2016). Researchers query their lack of understanding of possible consequences including security, privacy, abuse, predators and bullying (2016). With older students, researchers are concerned with their lack of knowledge surrounding implications for employability (2016). The socioeconomic divide also poses a disadvantage to those living in a low SES who are unable to receive the knowledge at home about internet usage as their parents unfortunately do not have the knowledge or experience themselves (Buchanan, Southgate, Smith, Murray & Noble, 2017).

In regards to cyberbullying, the increased use of technology has proven that it is more frequent, suggesting that it is becoming a part of many children’s every day experience with one-third or more of students experiencing some form of cyberbullying (Mareez & Petermann, 2012). Evidence shows cyberbullying is not gender specific, indicating both females and males experience it in their youth (2012). The concern here is that students believe nothing can be done to reduce cyberbullying, opting out of reporting these experiences to school personnel or parents as they think adults cannot help in such situations (2012). This is where we, as teachers, can have an impact on this generalised idea that students have to suffer years of cyberbullying, without adequate reactive and preventive strategies to reduce the rate of cyberbullying. Teaching students coping strategies such as how to seek social support can be a tool to reduce negative emotions and the associated stress that comes with cyberbullying (2012).

What can we do?

We as a society, are immune to thinking of the internet as technology that has corrupted our lives, especially young people. The media plays a big part in framing it as a resource that shapes our children as powerless victims. I personally believe, instead of considering the internet and the digital world as a negative invention in our society, we should be talking about it in a positive light. When used correctly, our children can become resourceful participants and achieve so much.

Research suggests that because of this negative picture we have painted about technology, children are being discourage from freely using the internet. They do so to protect themselves from making mistakes that could impact their future and encountering danger (Buchanan, Southgate, Smith, Murray & Noble, 2017). This is fine if technology was not used as frequently as it is today but it has been suggested that a lack of digital footprints, can be just as damaging for future employment as a badly managed one (2017). Likewise, in current events of Covid-19, we should be encouraging the use of technology, as we have seen the positive outcomes we can achieve WHEN USED PROPERLY.

I guess what I am getting at is that little things can be done early on to show students the positive side of using the internet, including creating a positive digital footprint (which we will discuss soon) rather than all the negative things they should constantly be looking out for. Don’t get me wrong, both are important but I believe knowledge on one side is lacking more than the other side.

Take a look at this TEDx talk by Nicola Osborne that aims to get viewers thinking about how they want to be perceived in the digital world.

When I talk about a digital footprint that can impact future employment, you are probably wondering, why would I teach my young students about this? You are probably correct.. you wouldn’t as they would not be able to grasp the idea of it. For older students, who are more frequently thinking about their future careers, it would be of benefit to them to learn about how what they do online can impact whether they get a job in 5–10 years time.

This brings me to the conclusion that we should teach students (primary and secondary) age-related concepts about the internet and technology like we do with any curriculum. Like you do with maths, you start off with the foundations and gradually build your way up until you are able to figure out the sum of x. Now I know, teachers already have so much responsibility but the research indicates that because the guidance students get from their home is uneven along SES lines, guidance from schools is a students best chance to create a positive digital footprint (Buchanan, Southgate, Scevak & Smith, 2018). Likewise with cyberbullying, research indicates that if students receive resources from adults that show how to successfully tackle cyberbullying and just having open discussions about it could improve their confidence to seek help when they need to (Mareez & Petermann, 2012).

Resources

This website asks you questions to get you thinking about how big your digital footprint is. You can do this yourself to understand better what is involved in your digital footprint or give the quiz to your students so they can assess their own

The following Prezi gives you some simple steps to consider to create and maintain a positive digital footprint. This can be shared with your students.

I consider this blog the holy grail in digital footprints. It contains great visuals that can be used in the classroom and also talks about the impact on digital footprints of teachers. We consider ourselves as role model to our students but sometimes we forget about our own footprints. I ask one question, whats your Facebook name? If it is your first and last name.. can your students search you and if so what can they see? The blog gets you thinking. It also has lesson plans so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to teaching your class!

Below has resources that can be used in the classroom to start the conversation on cyberbullying, being safe online and making positive choices. The activities and resources range in age so that there is something appropriate for different levels and can be as simple as a video or scenarios you can play out with students.

Conclusion

There is so much to know about the internet and digital technologies. What is inevitable is that our students will be exposed to the internet throughout their schooling. We should encourage their use of it, not use scare tactics to turn them away. Education and conversations around the positive use of the internet can be just one small trick we implement in our classroom to help our students now and in the future.

References

Australian Government. (2020). Classroom Resources. Retrieved from https://www.esafety.gov.au/educators/classroom-resources

Buchanan, R., Scevak, J., & Smith, S. (2018). Expert insights into education for positive digital footprint development. The Journal for Educators, 37, 49–64.

Buchanan, R., Southgate, E., Smith, S., Murray, T., & Noble, B. (2017). Post no photos, leave no trace: Children’s digital footprint management strategies. E-Learning and Digital Media. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/2042753017751711

Marees, N., & Petermann, F. (2012). Cyberbullying: An increasing challenge for schools. School Psychology International, 33(5), 467–476.

Morris, K. (2018). Teaching children about digital footprints and online reputations (with student poster). Retrieved from http://www.kathleenamorris.com/2018/06/12/digital-footprints/

Osborne, N. [TEDx Talks]. (2016, December 3). What do your digital footprints say about you? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVX8ZSAR4OY

Rachel Buchanan. (2016). Digital footprint of children: latest research on the issues and implications. Australian Association for Research in Education. Retrieved from https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=1938

Smith, K. (2014). 10 steps to maintaining a positive digital footprint. Retrieved from https://prezi.com/c8ftgxdw7dhw/10-steps-to-maintaining-a-positive-digital-footprint/

TechTerms. (2020). Digital Footprint. Retrieved from https://techterms.com/definition/digital_footprint

Your Digital Footprint. (n.d.). Measure Your Footprint. Retrieved from http://digitalfootprintimu.weebly.com/measure-your-footprint.html

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