Protecting Your Digital Footprint

Internet safety tips for you and your brood.

With more than 1.5 billion Web surfers worldwide, anyone’s photos and videos can go global within seconds. Digital footprints, personal facts posted online, are traceable, permanent and all-telling. Viral content could potentially damage reputations, affect future jobs and even lure online predators, including among children.

Here are key pointers to heed when it comes to putting forth a digital footprint.

1. Prepare to go public.

Content on the Internet is available for all to see, from friends, relatives and employers, to colleagues, coaches and teachers. Employers search for information on job applicants on sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. Tell your kids the same. They may think twice about posting certain photos and comments on social networking sites.

In fact, a recent CareerBuilder study found that 26 percent of all hiring managers use search engines to research the digital footprint of potential applicants. A staggering 50 percent of recruiters for college graduate jobs exhibited the same behavior. Likewise, a study by the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Market Research found that 26 percent of college admission offices also use search engines to research applicants. In other words, one questionable post, photo or comment could cost you or a family member an education, athletic scholarship or dream job.

2. Understand the Internet is viral and uncontrollable.

It takes seconds for a text message, e-mail or tweet to go viral and spread like wildfire. Especially with the ever-growing sexting epidemic among teens, it’s important to know the consequences and share them with your kids. You might broach the topic with tweens and teens that a revengeful Florida boy e-mailed and texted nude photos he had received of his former 16-year-old girlfriend to more than 70 people, including her parents, grandparents and teachers. The teenage boy was then charged with transmitting child pornography and is now a registered sex offender— a label he must carry until he is at least 43 years old.

3. Ask some questions before pressing send.

Questions for you and your family members to consider include: Is there anything in this picture or video that might tell the world too much personal information about me? Do I want to be asked about a certain comment, video or picture at a job interview in 20 years? What message am I sending about myself and my family with this post?

4. Don’t overexpose yourself.

Trying to hide one’s digital footprint in this technological era is practically futile. After all, the Library of Congress is acquiring the entire Twitter archive, which includes all tweets since March 2006.

By posting personal information, a person becomes susceptible to online predators, cyberbullying and physical harm. According to a 2008 study by National Crime Prevention, up to 8.7 million American teens are bullied online every year. Information you or your child think may be private, including where you live and where your little ones go to school, can still lure physical predators.

5. Avoid negative publicity.

Opinions and judgments are formed from what has been put into the social media world. For example, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps lost a Kellogg’s sponsorship and tainted his reputation after a photo surfaced of the athlete smoking marijuana. What you post or say online, or what others reveal about you, sends a message about who you are. Aspects of your digital footprint, such as uploaded photographs, blog comments, YouTube videos and Facebook wall posts, might not portray the way you would like to be seen. That’s why it’s imperative to be vigilant about the things disseminated about you online.

In this technological era, all adults and kids should gain a firm understanding of their digital footprint. To help young people understand the depth of digital influence, families should start a dialogue early about the importance of one’s presence on the Internet and how to keep it positive.