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Digital Footprints: How to Protect your Child’s Reputation Online

In a social media world where interactions are just one ‘like’ away, how can parents explain to teenagers the impact that one careless post or picture can have on their future?

In no surprise to many parents, phones have become their children’s tool of choice to message friends, watch videos, consume advertising and create content of their own. A fifth of UK five- and six-year-olds have their own mobile, according to Childwise Monitor; this rises to 91 per cent by age 11 and even higher for 13- to 16-year-olds. Research by Ofcom found that, in 2016, internet use overtook watching television as children’s most popular pastime.

This younger generation of five- to 16-year-olds spend, on average, three hours a day on their phone, according to the Childwise Monitor report. And they’ve witnessed ordinary people open up their lives on social media to become ‘influencers’ – gaining fame in the form of hundreds of thousands of followers, and fortune through lucrative promotional deals. It’s little wonder many teenagers are keen to show off their new hairstyle or prized possession to a digital audience.

How do you talk to your children about social media safety?

John Groom, senior associate at global law firm Baker McKenzie, acknowledges parents’ concerns about their children’s online habits and the threats they may face. But, Groom says, parents should initiate an ongoing discussion about their children’s relationship with social media rather than trying to stop it altogether.

“It’s easy to want to go into a ‘red-flag mode’ when talking about children and social media, but parents, teachers and policymakers need to try to understand from a child’s perspective,” says Groom, who has specialised in social media law and regulation for more than five years.

“The reality is that social media and online engagement is part of a child’s life. Everyone at their school is going to have a social media account. It’s better to be part of the conversation and educate, advise and emphasise a positive relationship than be the fun police and come down too hard.”

Creating digital footprints

A survey of eight- to 17-year-olds by the UK Safer Internet Centre found that respondents felt inspired (74%), excited (82%) or happy (89%) as a result of their internet use. Groom agrees that social media within friendship circles can help develop relationships after school.

However, he also highlights the need for education around safety. Children should be advised to create strong passwords and share them only with parents; restrict social media contacts to personal friendship groups; refrain from communicating with strangers online and report cyberbullying or offensive content to a responsible adult.

He also advocates making children aware that what they post today can come back to haunt them in the future: the so-called digital footprint.

“The message for kids is to always assume what you’re posting is going to be seen again. Even in a temporary sharing environment, your posts are on a system somewhere and can be captured before you’ve deleted them. Just because you’re not face to face with someone or not using your real name doesn’t mean you can abandon all basic decency rules or even the law.

“You can’t just say what you want,” he adds, citing recent examples in the US where baseball stars have been caught out by offensive tweets they posted years before while still in their teens. “Social media interactions made when they were young are coming back to haunt them.”

Four children sat on sofa looking at phones and tablets

We’re all spending more time online, that includes children.

An eye to the future

The digital footprint left behind can impact future applications for university, employment and membership clubs, with an online profile used to make judgements, Groom warns youngsters. “If someone is interested in you or your application, they will Google you. I’ve known people who have faced a grilling for international travel visas because of what they’ve posted online five years earlier.”

Groom recommends that youngsters, like all social media users, get into the habit of reviewing their online persona – pruning posts regularly and deleting anything that is no longer important, or that they might regret or no longer like.

“Review anything you’ve been tagged in and untag anything you don’t like or you think is negative,” he says. “Social media users are judged by association, not just on what they post. Be careful of who you accept as a friend, who you follow and what you like. It could be viewed as an endorsement by those viewing your profile.”

Pressure to perform

Parents also need to be aware of the pressures many youngsters feel to look good or perform on social media and how it can influence what a teenager posts.

“We need to make children aware of ascribing value to the things they see online,” Groom says. If a child is following celebrities, models, influencers or even their friends online, they need to realise they’re seeing a curated version of someone’s life – one that has been heavily edited.

“People want to convey an image of having been to the best places, having seen the best views, and having all the friends in the world, but kids need to be reminded that they are seeing a doctored snapshot,” he says. “You never see the context behind a photo or the underlying pressures that a person is under. Just because they’ve uploaded that photo, it doesn’t mean they are living the dream.”

And while youngsters are being encouraged to display a positive and respectful image online, Groom reminds parents that they’re the ones who create a child’s digital footprint the moment they upload their first photos.

“That’s not to say ‘don’t upload pictures of your baby’, but be aware that what you’re doing is creating a digital footprint for your child before they’ve assumed their own online identity.”

Richard Dunnett is a journalist who writes about business and technology.