How to Talk to Your Tweens About Their Online Footprint

by Screen Time Team on 13/01/2021

While “the internet is forever” might be a mild exaggeration, it’s not inaccurate to say that the internet can cling to your personal information and things you say for a shockingly long time. And tweens might not realize just how large and enduring their internet footprint is. Here’s what parents should know.

Is The Internet Really Forever?

The short answer is, “Yes, if somebody really wants it to be.” Consider that your behavior online can be documented by others in a host of ways:

  • Screenshot
  • Backing up a link
  • Saving the page to a hard drive
  • Keeping a rude or distasteful email
  • Printing out the comment
  • Photographing the monitor
  • Recorded by your own device in some way
  • Backed up by automatic systems

Even “private mode” won’t protect kids. Snapchat, for example, claimed that its photos and notes vanished forever, only for that to be quickly proven to be false. Similar claims by other sites that screenshots weren’t possible have been repeatedly disproven or worked around.

It’s true that most of the time, our behavior doesn’t stick around simply because not many people are dedicated to digging out everything we’ve said and done. Some, however, have dangerous motives such as online grooming or fraud. Even if they don’t, parents of their friends or teachers may not see what they view as funny or innocent in the same light.

Nonetheless, even a cursory browse of social media, with screenshots going viral, video of people acting out in public, and more, should be enough to convince kids that yes, they have a footprint, and anybody can see it.

Young teen looking at her phone.

Cleaning Up Their Footprints

There are a few steps that can be taken to keep your child’s online footprint clean. Repairing it after the fact is a complex and sometimes-difficult process, so it’s better to keep it tidy now.

  • Use parental control software to reinforce family rules, such as blocking certain apps and limiting time spent on others.
  • The internet joke “don’t tweet” is more than comedy; it’s good advice. Tweens should consider the quality of what they’re saying and whether it adds to the conversation or derails it.
  • Encourage kids to stop and think about their audience: Who’s reading? Will they understand the context of that joke or remark? This should apply even to private conversations, which don’t always stay private.
  • The same is true of photos, even innocent ones. Sit down with a few photos they’ve taken and walk them through what people might be able to learn from them, such as the location, the name of their school from sports uniforms, who else is with them in the photo, the time of year, and other data.
  • Don’t forget that computer files have their own data. For example, many photo apps have “metadata,” information such as the date and time a photo was taken, the settings of the camera, and in some cases GPS coordinates or approximate location.

Talking with your teen about their online footprint is a good way to get them used to the necessity of thinking about others and their own safety. Remind them never to post anything they wouldn’t be comfortable having anyone else access, now or in the future. 

Parental control software can help keep levels of internet engagement healthy. To learn more about Screen Time, try it for free!

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