With students spending countless hours online both while in class and at home, teachers and students need to understand the concept of a “digital footprint.” Students should be aware of how they are being digitally tracked and what information they are releasing online. Teachers should promote safe internet use and make sure their students are well-informed about what they are doing online. 

In this article, we will define “digital footprint,” outline the two types of digital footprints—active and passive—and digital footprint facts, and discuss five ways students can manage their digital footprint.   

What Is a Digital Footprint? 

Everyone who uses the internet has a digital footprint. A digital footprint is the trail of data you create when you go online. Included in it are emails you send, websites you visit, and other information you may submit online. 

Whenever you share content, post something online, or allow cookies to collect your information, you are adding to your digital footprint. All online activity leaves a digital trail. This can include your login details, IP address, and other personal information. 

It’s a good idea for students to aim at having a positive digital footprint. A digital footprint represents a student’s digital identity. The information could show up when someone (schools, prospective employers) searches their name online.  

Students need to understand that their online identities can influence their real-world life. Schools, employers, and law enforcement could potentially use a student’s digital footprint when judging their character. A student’s digital footprint can have a deep and long-lasting impact on their life. Encourage students to learn about the risks they face each time they log onto the Internet.

The Two Types of Digital Footprints

There are two general categories of digital footprints: active footprints and passive footprints. Which one applies depends on how the information is acquired. 

Active footprints and passive footprints can both be observed and tracked in various ways by multiple sources. 

Active Digital Footprints

Active digital footprints are made up of data that is left when internet users make deliberate choices. For example, posts made on social media are a type of active footprint. 

Active Digital Footprint Examples

  • Filling out online forms (signing up to receive emails or texts)

  • Posting all forms of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter)

  • Accepting cookies on a device when asked to by the browser

Passive Digital Footprints 

Passive digital footprints are ones that are left behind without the internet user intending to—and sometimes without knowing that they have. For example, when a website collects information on how many times you have accessed the site recently, it’s adding to your passive digital footprint. The reason for this is that you did not opt-in to provide them with this data. Passive digital footprints are a hidden process that internet users may not be aware is happening at all. 

Passive Digital Footprint Examples

  • Websites and applications that utilize geolocation to extract your location data

  • Websites that install cookies without disclosing this to the internet user 

  • When an internet user’s likes, shares, and comments are used by social media companies and advertisers in order to profile them and show them advertisements based on their interests

Digital Footprint Facts 

According to the Pew Research Center, a think tank, “internet users are becoming more aware of their digital footprint; 47 percent have searched for information about themselves online.” 

The same source found that 60 percent of internet users said that they are not worried about how much information is available about them online.

A 2017 CareerBuilder Survey found that 70 percent of employers use social media to screen candidates during their hiring process. 

The same study found that 51 percent of employers had found information on social media that caused them to turn down an otherwise suitable candidate for a job. 

A survey from Kaplan, an education company, found that 40 percent of college admissions officers researched applicants’ digital footprints when making enrollment decisions.

5 Ways Students Can Manage Their Digital Footprint 

1. Utilizing Privacy Settings

Chances are, students are on some form of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok. These websites can contain a large amount of personal information. Teachers should encourage students to limit what they share online and take steps to limit the audience of their posts to close friends and family only. Students using Twitter should protect their tweets under “security and privacy” settings—this allows only selected accounts to view their tweets. 

2. Keeping a List of Their Online Accounts

Teachers should get students to write down a list of all of their online accounts and delete accounts they no longer use. There is no reason for students to keep old social media accounts or other online profiles that are searchable to everyone. Having a list of accounts helps students to keep track of their online presence and digital footprint. 

3. Not Oversharing 

One of the best tips teachers can provide their students on protecting their digital footprint is not to overshare. This concept may be foreign to digitally connected kids, but the best way to keep a good digital footprint is not to create one in the first place. Students should be reminded not to post information they may not want the world to know about, such as their usernames, aliases, passwords, last name, full name, pictures, addresses, or other important information. 

4. Looking Themselves Up Online 

Students should be encouraged to look themselves up online periodically and see what comes up when they Google their full names. This is an interactive way to get students interested in learning about digital footprints and to learn what prospective employers or admissions officials will find when they are scrutinized. 

5. Setting Up a Second Email Account

A secondary email address—sometimes referred to as a “junk” account—can be used to submit to online forms, sign up for newsletters or social media accounts, or do anything else a primary email address can. However, as long as students do not tie the secondary email to their real identity, they will be lessening their digital footprint. By linking a secondary email account to a primary one messages can be accessed seamlessly. 

Students leave traces of digital footprints anytime they are online—whether they are inside or outside of class. GoGuardian is here to help teachers and administrators create a safe space online while students learn.