Last year I was invited to talk to a group of school students aged 16-18 years on the subject of keeping yourself safe in online social networks. An easy task, you might imagine, except that it has two main difficulties. If you look at it from the teens’ point of view, they’re probably thinking that here comes yet another old fuddy-duddy telling us not to post photos of ourselves online. The temptation is to win them over by telling them not to worry, and to just get on with it. That would please them, no doubt, but would alienate their teachers and, in any case, not be entirely useful. On the other hand, if you take the standard “don’t do this, don’t do that approach”, that may well please their teachers, but would not be very useful to the students – especially if by that time they have mentally switched off. It would also be hypocritical on my part.
It seems to me that what is required is, first, to acknowledge that we all have a digital identity, unless one takes extraordinary steps to avoid having one. True, you can opt to not have a Facebook account or use email and so on, but you cannot control what other people do, whether that is your friends tagging you in photos on Facebook, or officialdom creating online records for you.
Some years ago, the e-learning working party of the British Computer Society’s Education and Training Group, of which I was a member, compiled a digital journey that an average person will go through from the moment they are conceived. Interestingly, there is a video on a similar theme, which I mentioned in Kids Aren’t Stupid. Here it is:
If you cannot avoid having a digital identity, it stands to reason that the next best thing is to manage it as best you can. How can school help youngsters to do so? Here are 9 suggestions:
- Embed the use of social networking and other tools into the fabric of school life.
- If that’s not possible (yet), at least acknowledge that these tools are part of normal life now, and teach youngsters how to use them appropriately. Ban them from school if you feel you must, but please don’t pretend they don’t exist. How will that enable you to exercise your duty of care in this respect?
- Help them appreciate the extent of their digital footprint by searching for themselves online. A good visual search engine for this is Spezify. Type your name into the search box, and it’s as if someone threw the contents of a box containing your stuff onto the floor. You’ll see photographs, videos, and snippets of social network profiles.
- Teach students about the tools available to help them. For example, having a Google Alert set up to tell you whenever your name is mentioned on the web is one way of making sure you can respond, if you feel a response is necessary or wise, to any negative comments made about you.
- Help them take ownership of their digital identity. In the Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book, Kern Kelley tells us that when students at his school graduate they are given their own domain name, which the school calls their “digital business card”. What a brilliant idea!
- Help students understand the importance of taking ownership of one’s identity online by reading and taking at least some of the advice from Google Bomb. This book documents the horrendous consequences arising from severe online harassment. The legal aspects relate to the USA, but it contains useful lessons and advice for people from all countries I think.
- Help students appreciate the fact that once they (or someone else) puts anything relating to them online, it’s very difficult to erase it. See the article entitled “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age”.
- Help students understand the importance of common sense. Because of what I think of as a form of triangulation, it’s very easy to piece together bits of data gleaned from different areas of the web to yield valuable information which could be dangerous in the wrong hands. For example, I demonstrated to my nephew recently how I was able to find his university address and lecture timetable within two or three minutes, starting with little more than his name. What that means for me is not refraining from putting things online altogether, but being careful about what I put online. For example, I don’t announce in Twitter or anywhere else when I’m going to be away from home, at which time my house may be empty. That, to me, is common sense, and just one way of managing my digital footprint.
- This last suggestion is controversial, for reasons I’ll explain. It is: rather than shying away from putting your thoughts online, put them in as many places you can: your own blog, Twitter, Facebook, other people’s blogs (in the comments section) and so on. The only trouble with this point, though, is that it’s only effective if you use your real name, which makes it problematic to advise students to do, for e-safety reasons. It might be best left as advice to give them when they’re about to leave, or to omit altogether.
The photograph is (c) vivekchugh.