Shamus Smith

Digital footprint of children: latest research on the issues and implications

Australian children are among the youngest and most prolific users of the internet in the world. They are, on average, a little under eight years old when they begin using the internet and most go online daily. So it is not long before they develop an extensive digital footprint. But not much is known about young people’s digital footprint awareness and how to best educate them to manage their growing online presence.

My colleagues, Jill Scevak, Shamus Smith, Erica Southgate and I decided to investigate the issues involved in children understanding and managing their digital footprint.

We surveyed a variety of experts about what they thought were the main digital footprint issues for children and for young people. We spoke to primary school students (and next year we will be following this up by speaking to secondary students), did an online survey of Australian university students, and ran focus groups with university students at one Australian university. Here I will give an overview of what we found so far, and look at what this might mean for careers education.

What the experts say

We surveyed 53 digital and career experts (academics, researchers, policymakers, teachers, and university career advisers). They told us that:

  • Education for digital print management should be sequential to match the development of those being educated.
  • They were concerned that children don’t have the cognitive development to understand the longevity of what is put online
  • They said a holistic approach needs to be taken to manage the issue of digital footprints – education should come from family, schools, universities, government and career educators. It is considered to be both a societal and an individual issue.

The experts noted that children ( aged 5 to 12) can be technically clever online but lack an understanding of the possible consequences of their actions, especially regarding safety issues such as security, privacy settings, abuse, predators, and bullying. Some of those surveyed were concerned that due to children’s innocence, that they may be too trusting. Children also have little control of what gets posted about them. Privacy was considered to be overall the most serious issue for children.

When asked about the digital footprint issues for young people ( aged 18 to 24) the experts surveyed identified many of the same concerns as for children, but with additional concerns about the permanence of what is posted online and the implications of this for employability. They noted that is it nearly impossible for most people to be completely anonymous online and that they need to be aware of the immediacy and longevity of their digital engagement.

What the children said

We ran focus groups with thirty-three 10-12 year olds from three primary schools in regional NSW. The children we spoke to were very aware of cyber safety and could discuss the issues of privacy, security, cyber bullying and online predators. This knowledge has come from school and (to a lesser degree) from home. They could tell us the rules for safety (don’t click on anything strange, don’t ‘friend’ people you don’t know, don’t put information about yourself online).

These students have varying degrees of parental support and involvement with their internet use. They know what digital footprints are, and are able to describe the implications of these (‘the internet keeps everything’). They manage their digital footprints by minimising them. They see digital footprints as a ‘danger’ and so they use social media for private chats, not for making public posts. They did not know that you could create a positive digital footprint.

What the university students said

We ran an online survey for university students and had 635 responses from 28 Australian universities. From this survey we found that university students are very concerned about their digital footprints and want more guidance.

  • Over 75% (n=425) of students claim that their university has provided them with no guidance on how to manage their digital footprints.
  • Over 70% of students (n=445) responded to the question: What would you like to know about your digital footprint?
  • Typical responses include:-

“how to erase, keep private and monitor”;

“How can I create a professional digital footprint? What kind of information should I avoid posting for my digital footprint to look professional?”

We also ran focus groups with 30 students at one Australian university. We found that due to their concerns about their digital footprints they use a variety of strategies to manage their digital footprints. Their strategies include

  • Varied privacy settings
  • Use of pseudonyms and anonymity
  • Selectivity in the use of their real names
  • Locking profiles down (aiming for complete privacy)
  • Making profiles completely public but never posting anything
  • Separation of professional and personal profiles
  • Not using any social media

Implications for careers education

There have been massive changes in employment over the past 2 generations. A single-track career is no longer the norm and new career patterns have emerged: serial careers, (a number of career changes) lifestyle careers (making career decisions based on lifestyle choices, for example working part time to care for children), portfolio careers (a combination of carefully chosen jobs undertaken simultaneously which utilize different skills) and well as more haphazard career paths due to the increase in part-time work, and under and unemployment.

Along with these changing patterns, the internet has changed the way people seek and find jobs and the way companies recruit and select employees. More than half of all organisations have a policy of profiling potential employees and a quarter of workers have witnessed their employers using the internet to profile candidates.

In this context it is very important that students are taught to present themselves well online. Responsible online engagement can create a positive public persona which acts as ongoing résumé of achievement and identity.

From surveying and talking to university students we know that they are not confident that they are able to create a professional digital footprint.

Our conversations with primary students suggests that the end of primary school is a good time to start educating them to build a positive online presence. This would build upon their cyber safety awareness and help them to transition to high school where their internet usage increases.

This education could be further developed in high school and university. That way students are given more options regarding the informed management of their developing digital identity.


BuchananDr Rachel Buchanan is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. She teaches educational foundations and researches into the equity and social justice implications of education policy and the increased deployment of digital technologies within the education sector. She can be contacted via or found on twitter: @rayedish.     


Rachel is undertaking this research with Dr Jill Scevak, Dr Shamus Smith and Dr Erica Southgate. Part of this research was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, through a HEPP National Priority Pool grant. The research with primary schools was funded by the .auDA Foundation. More information about our research can be found here. (This post provides a follow up of our investigation into Australian students’ understanding of their digital footprints.)

Digital Footprint: not everyone is equal and why unis need to teach managing DF as a 21st century skill

Australians are among the most digitally connected in the world and young people spend a lot of time online. Most young Australians have an extensive digital footprint, especially university students.

Digital footprints are created through interaction with the internet and social media. Increasingly, digital footprint management is an important career development skill and one that is vital to the professional opportunities of university students.

However, we know very little about what university students know and do, in regards to their digital footprints. This post provides an initial overview of our* investigation into Australian university students’ understanding of their digital footprints. This research and our data collection are still taking place.

ABS data indicates that over 90% of Australians aged 18-40 regularly use the internet. The increase in online activity and social media usage has implications for digital footprints given that 800 000 Australians post videos online, and of the 47% of 16-25 year olds that use platforms such as snapchat, 25% admit to posting material of a sexual nature online.

Digital Footprints

Such social media activities can create a negative, publically accessible digital footprint that can detrimentally impact an individual’s current prospects and future careers.

However, responsible online engagement can create a positive public persona which acts as ongoing résumé of achievement and identity.

Management of digital footprints is a 21st century life skill, a lack of which could have serious social and professional consequences for students. Popular media is full of warnings about the problems caused by poor digital footprint management:

From The Age: “What if today’s sexting teenager is tomorrow’s prime minister – adult lives can be marred by the digital footprint students are laying down now.”

From the SMH: “Young ones, your online reputation is, like, forever”

Professional social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, make the professional implications of a badly managed online presence clear: “Your digital footprint is ruining your job application

Higher Education, Social Media and Digital Footprints

Yet, with our increased digital connectivity having no online presence can be as detrimental as having a badly managed one. Research tells us that

  • Human Resources practitioners are increasingly using social media in recruitment, selection and hiring practices.
  • Social Networking awareness is largely absent from the Higher Education curriculum.
  • Curation and management of digital footprints is emerging as an essential skill for career development, yet universities are not adequately addressing this.

In regards to university students:

  • Students with a high Socio-Economic Status (SES) background are coming to university with more technological knowledge and skills, have more experience with, and positive attitudes towards the use of ICT, than students with a low SES background.
  • These students are better placed, than students from other backgrounds, to develop and manage their digital footprints while at university.
  • Higher education institutions must help students who are coming to university without the digital education confidence and knowledge develop the required digital skills for success and achievement at university and beyond.

The Equity and Digital Footprint Project

Our project focuses on this emerging equity issue to better understand what undergraduate students from low SES and non-traditional backgrounds know and do in relation to their digital footprints. Information from this research will be used to develop resources to help students build a positive digital footprint.

To achieve this we are currently:

  • Reviewing the relevant literature
  • Conducting an online survey of university students across Australia to determine their knowledge and behaviour in relation to digital footprint management.
  • Running focus groups with University of Newcastle students to speak to students in more depth about their use of professional social media.
  • Doing an audit of university online resources on digital footprint to determine how well Australian universities are addressing this issue
  • Conducting an online survey of ICT educators, policy makers and higher education career service personnel to garner collective wisdom and evidence of which educational approaches would be most effective for students.

Preliminary findings

While it is very early days, our initial explorations reveal that:

  • “Anecdata” abounds – There is lots of anecdotal evidence about the uses and abuses of social media and digital footprints, and media reports of the sensational examples provide only a distorted picture.
  • There is conflicting information about the extent to which employees are using digital footprints to vet applicants.
  • Students are aware that their internet usage creates a digital footprint, and they employ a variety of strategies to minimize or manage their digital footprints. These strategies range from a refusal to use social media, judicious use of privacy settings, minimal or highly strategic use of their real names when online, through to working from an assumption that privacy does not exist. Most students see their digital footprint as a liability rather than an opportunity.
  • While Universities in the United Kingdom are producing some excellent comprehensive resources and services for digital footprint education the approach is very uneven in Australian universities.

Given the emphasis on excellence and equity in Australian universities and the pattern of increased access to universities from students from all backgrounds it is important that universities provide adequate support to all their students. Increased access to university is not an achievement if students are not provided with the resources and skills to participate and succeed in, and beyond, university. Not all students come to university with the necessary digital skills and knowledge.

Given the increased importance of social media management and having a traceable online presence, digital footprint education can provide students with opportunity to turn access and participation in university education into success; a positive online presence acts as an on-going record of identity and achievement.


BuchananDr Rachel Buchanan is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. She teaches educational foundations and researches into the equity and social justice implications of education policy and the increased deployment of digital technologies within the education sector. She can be contacted via or found on twitter: @rayedish.       *Rachel is undertaking this research with Dr Jill Scevak, Dr Shamus Smith and Dr Erica Southgate. This project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, through a HEPP National Priority Pool grant. More information about our research can be found here