Digital footprints: How to protect your child’s reputation online

04 Jan 2019

Richard Dunnett

Business and technology journalist

In a social media world, interactions are just one ‘like’ away. But 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.
 
According to Childwise Monitor, a fifth of UK five- and six-year-olds have their own mobile. 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 phones.
 
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 to talk to 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 it 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 to be the fun police and come down too hard.”
 
‘Armed with private information, fraudsters can easily apply for credit in the name of the child or parent, potentially destroying their credit rating.’
Emma Sadleir, CEO of the Digital Law Company, believes that there should be a blanket ban on smartphones for children under the age of 13. “The only reason that kids are getting phones younger than that is that of social pressure.”
 
Once children are online, Sadleir says that it's very important for parents to know what their children are up to. “Educate yourself. If your child is on SnapChat or playing Fortnite and you don't know how those platforms work, then I think that's negligent.”
 
“Children are so vulnerable and we've got to teach cynicism, we've got to teach scepticism, we've got to teach children that people are not always who they say they are.”
 
Emma Sadleir, CEO of the Digital Law Co
‘Children are so vulnerable and we've got to teach cynicism, we've got to teach scepticism, we've got to teach children that people are not always who they say they are.’

Emma Sadleir, CEO, Digital Law Company

Creating digital footprints

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, it 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.”

 

‘The message for kids is to always assume what you’re posting is going to be seen again.’

Leaving the door open to fraudsters

 
Another important consideration for children is to be careful not to reveal personal or financial information to strangers. According to Investec’s head of fraud prevention, Eddie McGovern, this should be top of mind when creating profiles and sharing information online.
 
“Fraudsters are on the lookout for any information useful to them. This could be anything from contact details, addresses and login information, to words or names that could be used to prove their identities such as mother’s maiden name, football club, school, and even teachers’ names”. Armed with private information, McGovern says, fraudsters can easily apply for credit in the name of the child or parent, potentially destroying their credit rating.
 

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.”
 
‘People want to convey an image of having been to the best places, 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.’

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.”
 
 
An earlier version of this article appeared on The Stand.