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Helping students learn how to manage their digital lives

Today’s students are digital natives. They’ve grown up being connected, having the internet and all its spoils right at their fingertips. In fact, it’s so engrained for today’s youth that they rarely think twice about posting and sharing even the most intimate details of their lives. Whether it’s through social media activity, blogs, online subscriptions, videos, comment sections, photo galleries or even browsing history, pretty much everything that’s done online leaves a mark. Those collective marks are also known as digital footprints—and the ones that digital natives are producing are surprisingly large. 

That’s why it’s so important for students to understand the repercussions their online actions, and the actions of others, have on their real lives—both now and in the future. Here are nine tips to help your students better understand and exert more control over their digital lives:

  1. Assume everyone can see everything all the time. This is the absolute best rule of thumb for managing one’s digital presence. Not only does it refer to the posting of text and images on various platforms across the web, but also web searches and browsing history. After all, how do they think highly targeted and personalized ads follow them wherever they go?
  2. Know that even deleted data isn’t necessarily gone. Even if you delete posts, images or other information from the web, and can no longer see it, that doesn’t mean it’s really gone. Sure, some things do get removed or lost forever, but there’s no way to know what’s actually been completely scrubbed clean as opposed to just hidden in virtually infinite places across the internet. This serves as yet another reason students should always think twice before posting. Once it’s there, it’s probably never (really) going away.
  3. Avoid the temptation to overshare. The internet is not a ‘dear old diary.’ So it’s highly advised students not share their emotions over it—especially if they are of anger, frustration, etc. Those feelings are often short lived, but the posts broadcasting them last forever. Same goes with photos, stories or anything else that could be deemed as inappropriate. If it’s not grandma or future-employer safe, then it’s better not to post. 
  4. Get to know—and be sure to use—privacy settings. Never trust the defaults. Period. Always check the privacy settings on any and all accounts. This should be done regularly because companies are constantly evolving their platforms, which includes their management settings too.  
  5. See what’s already out there about you. Googling yourself may sound narcissistic, but when it comes to keeping track of what the internet knows about you, it’s a necessary step. Pipl.com is another site that can showcase the mounds of personal data the internet has on an individual. Students might be surprised at the results they get simply by typing in their name, which could be just the shock they need to take their digital lives more seriously. They should also log out of all their social media accounts, then search their names in each of them to see what’s accessible to anyone. 
  6. Recognize others can add to the clutter. The very nature of social media means that oftentimes we’re not the only ones flooding the internet with our personal data—others are more than happy to do it for us. Friends, family and a host of other web users are constantly posting too, which means pictures, whereabouts and details about one’s personal life don’t have to come from that individual. And most folks aren’t concerned about asking permission before including others in their posts. That’s why it’s incredibly important for students to keep tabs on what’s being posted about them. They can keep track of this by setting up a Google alert for their name.
  7. Keep personal data private. This means don’t share information like addresses, phone number, passwords, credit card numbers, etc. It may sound obvious, but it definitely deserves its own spot on the list. Shared personal information can be sold, hacked or otherwise used and abused for a variety of reasons by companies, individuals and even the government. Students should consider identity protection services to help avoid issues associated with stolen data.
  8. Delete accounts that are no longer in use. It may seem obvious, but the actual number of people who clean up after themselves by getting rid of old accounts is astoundingly low. And with the wide number of platforms, services and websites out there, it’s reasonable to assume most everyone has at least one online account gathering digital dust. Be sure to clean virtual house regularly. This also includes online subscriptions. After all, some of those emails from organizations clogging up your inbox got there because someone who has your information sold it to someone else. Services like Unroll.Me or Trim can show you what you’re signed up for and help you unsubscribe.
  9. Understand that convenience comes at a cost. When you connect accounts, like logging into third-party services with a Facebook or Google account, you’re allowing them access to all of the information you’ve shared on those platforms. Another thing to consider is terms and conditions. Most organizations reserve the right to change these at any time, in any way, often without notice—and as users with accounts, your students have acknowledged that they’re okay with that, even though it’s impossible to know what all “that” includes. (It’s safe to assume they can use any of your information—including images—in any way they see fit, even for profit.)

As more and more aspects of our lives are becoming web-connected, it’s especially important to ensure every one of us takes the necessary steps to ensure the internet—and our presence on it—remains a valuable addition to our lives and not a detraction (or distraction) from it. So be sure to impart these tips upon your students and don’t forget to follow them yourself.