As going online becomes a pervasive part of everyday life, people are leaving vast amounts of digital footprints. For students, this means that public-facing information about them on social media and other sites can determine if they can be accepted to their college of choice or land their dream jobs.
This article discusses what are digital footprints, their general types, and the uses of your digital footprints. It will also give tips for students to manage their digital footprints so they can present the best possible version of themselves online.
Cybervetting and Your Digital Footprint
Cyber-vetting, or the practice of researching candidates online, has become an accepted practice among college admissions officers. In a test prep survey by Kaplan (2018), two-thirds or 68% of college admissions officers said that checking students’ searchable information online is “fair game” as part of the admissions process.
Source: Kaplan Survey Designed by
Though only 29% of participants surveyed said they actually practice cyber-vetting, it does not mean that posting questionable content online is not without consequences. One in 10 admissions officers said that they have revoked offers of admission after uncovering inappropriate social media posts. One only has to look at the Harvard incident where 10 students had their admissions offers revoked when it was discovered that they joined a Facebook group that circulated jokes about child abuse and the Holocaust (Jaschik, 2019). This incident underscores the importance of presenting a good image online by knowing how to protect your digital footprint.
Digital footprints are the trail of data you leave behind while using the internet. These can include various activities like the websites you visit, what products you bought, and the likes, shares, and posts you make on social media. Your digital footprint also includes the devices that you use to access the internet and articles you have written or were written about you. It literally encompasses everything that can be found about you online, even the information that is hard to find.
Digital footprints generally fall into active or passive ones. Active digital footprints are the results of one’s explicit acts. For example, you post something on Facebook, make a call through Skype, or send an email from Gmail. On the other hand, passive digital footprints are electronic breadcrumbs that the user does not intend on leaving. This can happen when your activity is tracked through cookies without your consent or your whereabouts are identified via geolocation services.
There are many entities who are interested in tracking your digital footprint. Foremost of these are advertisers, publishers, and data aggregators who use the data to sell you products and services. Potential employers or admissions officers might check your profile to check if you are a good fit for their organization. Worse, cybercriminals could mine that data to gain access to your account to commit fraud and identity theft. With this, it’s not surprising that people are taking the steps to protect their identity online. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 86% of U.S. adults have made conscious efforts to hide their digital footprints, from clearing cookies to using encrypted emails.
Tips for Students to Manage Their Digital Footprints
You can take control of your image by cleaning up your online profile. You can also boost your online security by following the steps below for how to protect your digital footprint.
- Look yourself up online. Type your name on search engines like Google, Bing, or Yahoo. Take note of anything negative that comes up in search results. Turn on Google alerts for your name so you are notified if something about you pops up online.
- List down all your accounts. Keep only the accounts you use. Delete ones that you do not use. This way, your online identity is easier to manage and you lessen the chances of having your data exposed through a data breach.
- Use privacy settings. Know the various privacy settings available on social media. On Facebook, you can control who can see your posts, who can add you as a friend, and the tags that show up on your timeline. On Twitter, you can protect your tweets so only your followers can see them.
- Keep things professional. Remember that what you post online can stay there for a long amount of time. You can be yourself and express opinions but make sure what you say or share is factual and is something that you would not mind a future employer or admissions officer reading.
- Keep your profile up to date. Part of how to manage your digital footprint is presenting the best version of yourself. Maintain your online profiles with current information, especially for professional or job search sites. This way, potential clients or employers can easily contact you.
- Don’t overshare. Avoid posting sensitive information such as your home or mobile number, credit card information, driver’s license, and the like. Reconsider sharing your full name, birth date, current employer, and other personal details that identity thieves can easily take advantage of.
- Delete unflattering content. Go through all your social media posts and delete content that you find questionable or unflattering. For content that is posted on a website, you would have to get in touch with the publisher or webmaster to have it deleted. If it still shows up in Google search even after you’ve requested deleting the content, you can fill out Google’s URL Removal tool to have the issue fixed.
- Check your browser for cookies. Cookies make online browsing more convenient, however, some types of cookies can compromise your privacy. Check your browser for cookies from sites you haven’t visited. Make sure to delete cookies every after a few months. Set your cookie preferences and block third-party cookies.
- Protect your passwords. Never share your password with anyone else, be it for work or personal purposes. If you can’t keep track of all your passwords, write them down in a notebook or planner and store this in a safe place. Better yet, use an online password manager.
- Use strong passwords. Passwords should have at least eight characters and include a combination of upper and lowercase letters, plus numbers and symbols. Avoid common passwords like “mypassword,” sequential numbers like “1234,” and keyboard paths like “qwerty.” Don’t include personal information like your birthday, family members’ names, or other information about you that can be easily looked up online.
- Create a second email account. You can create a burner email address or two so you can sign up for various kinds of services and keep the spam emails away from your primary inbox. They also function as recovery or backup emails in case your primary email gets hacked or is having some glitches.
- Share your achievements. Present yourself in a positive light by posting about personal or professional achievements that you’re proud of. Just be careful not to humble-brag and give credit to the people who helped you achieve your goals. You can also share your volunteer work and membership in professional organizations.
- Think before you post. Resist the temptation to vent online. Before you open social media, remember this mnemonic designed by Melissa Pilakowski (2015). Assess if what you’re sharing is True (T), Helpful (H), Inspiring (I), Necessary (N), and Kind (K) or in short, THINK before you post.
- Always update your software. Outdated software can give hackers a backdoor for accessing your private information. Keeping your antivirus and other programs updated means you get security patches that will help fix or remove bugs in your system. You can set programs and apps to auto-update so you’re sure you have the latest software installed.
- Use digital tools. To protect your privacy, you can use anti-tracking tools, private search engines, or anonymous browsers. One tool that has gained popularity lately is virtual private networks (VPNs), which mask your IP address so you can keep your location, browsing history, and other information private.
Worst-Case Scenario: Delete Your Digital Footprints
If you suffer from a massive data breach, the only option is to go nuclear. Wiping out your existence from the internet takes a bit of work, but here’s what you can do.
- Opt out of data broker sites. Data brokers collect information about you without your consent. They then sell that information to other data companies, firms, or individuals for targeted advertising and consumer profiling (Boticello, 2019). If you find yourself on sites like WhitePages, Spokeo, and MyLife, you would have to go to their opt-out page to request your information to be deleted.
- Delete social media accounts. It is undeniable how social media has made an impact globally. However, the growing vigilance about privacy is causing people to rethink social media use. If you’re contemplating deleting your account, make sure to back up your data first. Deletion procedures vary per site but beware of any grace period you need to observe before deleting your account for good.
- Unsubscribe from mailing lists. If you signed up for a mailing list, you might have unwittingly volunteered to get more promotional materials. You can manually unsubscribe from these junk mails by clicking on the Unsubscribe link from the email message itself. You can also use bulk unsubscribing tools like Unroll.me and Unsubscriber.
- Delete forum comments and blog posts. Forums are a shared space, so leaving a comment will be tied to an account that can be traced back to you. However, private site operators do not have an obligation to remove the content you want deleted. Instead, they will at least make your profile anonymous so your name and other descriptive information will not appear on the forum.
- Delete email accounts. Steps for different email providers will vary, but it is always safe to download your data first so you don’t lose important information. It’s also a good idea to do an inventory of what other services are tied to that email account.
Being Mindful of Your Online Activities
In today’s modern world, information about anyone is a mere click away. For students who have to think about college education and getting a well-paying job, what they do or share online can impact future opportunities. For this reason, it is important for them to take control of their online presence early on. Students must realize that almost everything they do online can leave a digital footprint.
There are many tips for students to manage their digital footprints. A good way to start is by looking up the search results for one’s name. Then review the content you generate from social media posts to blog posts and even forum comments. Delete questionable content yourself or ask the publisher or website owner to take it down for you. It’s also good to practice healthy cybersecurity habits like creating strong passwords and using privacy tools. In extreme cases, you can delete all traces of your digital footprint by deleting information about you from data brokers, as well as deleting your email and social media accounts.
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