How schools can teach students about their ‘digital tattoo’

As privacy concerns surge ever higher, some educators are pushing to replace the concept of “digital footprints”—the trail of data created by internet use—with “digital tattoos.”

As privacy concerns surge ever higher, some educators are pushing to replace the concept of “digital footprints”—the trail of data created by internet use—with “digital tattoos.” The latter idea alerts students to the permanence of personal information and images shared online, and the need to exercise caution when it comes to sharing that data.

The “digital tattoo” concept also teaches students that their information can be shared and saved by others or kept by the site or app itself, even if they delete it.

Digital citizenship education in general remains a rarity in most school districts, as it is not required or subjected to state testing, says Jamie Knowles, a senior manager with the nonprofit Common Sense Education. But as students live online, it becomes increasingly important to build digital citizenship into school culture, he adds.

Scare tactics?

Digital citizenship lessons should start early, as children begin using internet-connected devices while toddlers, Knowles says.

In elementary school, lessons can cover how students absorb media, and what opportunities the internet can provide, Knowles says. In middle school, topics such as online bullying and identifying trustworthy sources can be studied.

By high school, students can debate concepts such as the role of social media in their lives and how much personal information corporations should be allowed to collect.

Students also need to learn about their “hidden digital tattoo”—the information collected surreptitiously through browsers or social media profiles that may impact the ads and information they see online.

Some in the digital citizenship field fear the terms digital footprint and digital tattoo come off as scare tactics, and could prevent students from using the internet to its full potential, says Kristen Mattson, a high school library media center director at Indian Prairie School District 204 in suburban Chicago, and author of Digital Citizenship in Action.

“All of these approaches warn kids what not to do, but do very little to equip them with the skills to navigate online communities effectively,” Mattson says.

“What students need are opportunities to learn how to sort the flood of information that comes their way, decide what bits of private information they are willing to give to a corporation in exchange for a service, and how to network for their own personal success but also for social good and global change.”

Just another kind of citizenship

Any school that receives federal E-rate funding must comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which includes stipulations for teaching internet safety. However, each school, district and state can approach that differently, Mattson says.

For example, some schools discuss internet safety in a yearly assembly, while others give students short lessons during homeroom or advisory periods, Mattson says. Some have created semester-long courses to cover online and social media topics.

Educators should embed digital citizenship in all subject areas that ask students to use edtech tools. The concept also fits into most humanities courses, Mattson says.

“The best way to address digital citizenship is the same way we teach traditional citizenship—by engaging students in communities of their peers with support and guidance from adult mentors,” Mattson says. 

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