How to Talk to Your Child About Their Digital Footprint

By Andrea Karin Nelson
April 5, 2023

Picture this: you’re scrolling through Instagram, past a bread baking tutorial and the seven hundredth picture of your coworker’s cat, when you see it. Your sweet, innocent kid up to shenanigans, there for all the world to see. 

Children are notoriously shaky when it comes to considering the long-term consequences of their actions. It’s not their fault — their rational brains aren’t fully developed yet. Because of this, it’s natural as a parent to worry about what our kids might do or say online and the negative impact it could have on their life. Read on to learn about digital footprints, why they’re important, and how to help your child make smart decisions when it comes to theirs. 

What Is a Digital Footprint? 

Just like your child’s muddy feet on your clean kitchen floor, everything you post online leaves a trace — except your digital footprint can’t be wiped away with a mop, and the consequences are potentially much bigger. The photos, posts, and comments that a person makes online contribute to the impression they make on others. It’s that cumulative effect that makes up a digital footprint. 

Why Digital Footprints Matter

What your child does and says online can impact many areas of their life, both in the short-term and down the line. For better or for worse, college admissions offices and employers often see social media as fair game when evaluating applicants. A compromising picture or questionable words posted years before can derail a would-be student or employee’s prospects. 

Kids’ online behavior can also have consequences in the present. There have been instances of students being banned from extracurricular activities because of a post showing them drinking. 

Although your child’s digital footprint is important, it’s not something to panic over. Think of it as an opportunity to guide your child to make good digital decisions while they are still under your roof. This will set them up to make sound choices about their online behavior as they get older. 

How to Start the Digital Footprint Conversation 

It’s hard to know where to start with a topic as broad and important as this. Remember, the digital footprint talk is not just a one-time thing. Ideally, it’s an ongoing and evolving conversation that will shift and grow as your child gets older. 

Here are some things to consider: 

Be a role model 

Before you post a picture of your child, consider asking their permission. You can start this practice with kids as young as preschool age. We know it’s tough. They’re so stinking cute that you just wanna share that amazingness with the world! What if they say no? 

But by modeling careful consideration before posting, you’ll teach them to pause and think before putting something online. It also gives them experience exercising agency over their digital footprint in a way that you can supervise and guide. 

Teaching your child to make smart digital decisions

Encourage your child to stop and think before they post. Here are some questions they can ask themselves to guide their posting decisions:

  • Is what I’m communicating in this post kind? 
  • Does it reflect my values? 
  • What does this post say about me? 
  • Is what I’m posting something I’m comfortable with everyone knowing about me? 
  • How will I feel if my teachers, coaches, friends’ parents, etc. see this post? 
  • How will I feel if I see this post five years from now? 

Make social accounts private

Privacy settings allow you to control who can see, comment on, and save your posts on social media. Every platform is a little different, but it’s important to understand what social platforms your child is using and what their settings allow people to see. 

This is a great opportunity to talk to your child about online privacy. For example, if your child has a Snapchat account, sit down together and discuss why it’s important to keep their location private on Snapchat’s Snap Map — rather than broadcasting their location for strangers to see.

Here are some online privacy suggestions to discuss with your kid: 

  • Only accept friend and message requests from people they know.
  • Don’t share personal information online, like their birth date or school name.
  • Assume that people can and will screenshot everything they put online.
  • If something makes them feel uncomfortable, they should talk to their parent or another trusted adult. 

Keep the lines of communication open

Let your child know they can always come to you if they’re concerned about something they posted online. Practice regular check-ins with them where you sit down and look at their social media together. 

Consider using an app like BrightCanary that helps you keep an eye on your child’s social media presence. If you see a post that concerns you, use the above questions to help guide your approach. 

The Bottom Line

Digital footprints can have a big impact on a child’s life, and parents need to be active in guiding their children to make smart choices about what to post. Starting the conversation early and keeping the communication open and ongoing will set your child up for a lifetime of smart digital decisions.