Digital Footprint: Guiding Teens to Cultivate a Positive Online Presence
Editor’s note: Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith is a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher’s Guide each month.
Earlier this school year, one of the world’s most popular YouTubers, PewDiePie, got quite a bit of attention in the press for using racist language online. While many adults might not be familiar with his work—he live-streams himself playing video games—the majority of teenagers are. With over 57 million subscribers, he is the most popular performer in what has quickly become one of the most popular sources of entertainment for teens.
This isn’t the first time he’s found himself in hot water for putting hateful content online. Earlier this year, he lost his contract with Disney after it was discovered that he had shared anti-Semitic content on his YouTube channel. With an overwhelmingly large amount of young subscribers, people are rightfully concerned about the messages he’s getting across.
My students had much to say about the situation, with some swearing they would no longer follow him anymore, and some not understanding what the big deal was. It led to some rich discussions about the importance of language and how you need to be aware of how your words and actions can offend, even if that wasn’t your intention.
This month’s issue of Choices has a well-timed article to help support and continue these discussions. In Will Your Posts Come Back to Haunt You?, teens are reminded how easy it is to leave behind a trail of questionable content when you’re online, and how important it is to be mindful of what you post and like.
Before reading the article, I posed the following question to my students to reflect on in their journal:
What is a reputation, and how can your digital life impact yours?
Many of them thought reputation equaled fame and that reputation was based mainly on how many followers you had. After reading the article, they realized how far their digital footprints could reach beyond their core group of friends. Many of them got a panicked look on their faces while reading the stories in the article, and were eager to begin checking on their digital footprints right away.
Before we got started on the clean-up activity, I reminded them that they have the opportunity, as 8th graders, to almost start from scratch and begin mindfully cultivating a positive presence online. The later they start to pay attention to what they’re putting out there, the more difficult it is to protect your reputation.
Upon searching, many were surprised to see pictures they had liked popping up in Google Images, and one of my students was mortified when I was looking with him and something racist and offensive popped up. He explained to me that he didn’t like the content, but he always liked what his friends posted regardless.
I asked him how it felt to have me see that and how it might impact my opinion of him. He was remorseful, and said he understood why people were upset with PewDiePie. Whether you mean to be offensive or not isn’t the point. The point is being proud of what you put out there. Because all of the excuses and explanations just aren’t enough to undo the damage that’s been done. I reassured him that I believed him and understand it’s tough at his age to be mindful of everything he does online, but it’s a good thing he discovered it now. He agreed and told me he had more cleaning up to do.
Use the prompts on the Clean Up Your Digital Footprint activity sheet below to guide your students through the same activity.