Digital Footprint: Understanding The Reality And Impact On Our Children


According to the latest Ofcom report ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report’, published in November 2017.

  1. 1% of children aged 3 – 4 years old have their own smartphone and 21% have their own tablet with 53% of them going online for 8 hours per week.
  2. 23% of children aged 8-11s have a social media profile despite being under the age of consent.
  3. Only 38% of parents (children aged 5-15) whose child had a social media profile were aware of the minimum age requirement for setting up a profile.

Digital footprint

What Is A Digital Footprint?

Everything your child does on the Internet leaves what’s known as a digital footprint. This footprint continues to grow each time they use an app, watch videos, send photos, email, chat, search on google or log onto the internet. If you think that ‘witty or snarky comment’ on someones Facebook feed doesn’t count, you’d be very wrong. Even a like on a twitter post leaves its mark and every single day your child’s digital footprint is expanding.

Just because your child hits the ‘delete’ button, that doesn’t mean there is no longer a trace, in fact, a child’s digital footprint is often already in existence by the time they reach school age as their parents have been actively posting photos and information about their key milestones across social media. When it comes to minimising your child’s digital footprint, becoming their first line of defence by having a conversation early on about privacy, posting and commenting on social media is a smart move.

Helping your child to navigate the digital landscape doesn’t have to be a scary journey but one that you need to take together and regularly. It is incredibly important to explain to them that all actions build up to portray an image, also known as a ‘reputation’. An image that if not carefully managed can stick with them for a long time, often with lasting consequences as they grow and develop into adults.

Passive & Active Footprints: The Difference


This is made up of information that tech companies harvest behind the scenes such as IP addresses, browsing data and purchasing habits and is often collect without any awareness of the user. In particular, this data can be used not only for targeted advertising and commercial pressure but also for social profiling which means a child’s online experience can be influenced by the parents and visa versa as the accounts are linked.

As this type of data isn’t in the public domain it doesn’t pose a huge risk from a reputation point of view but it can be used for persuasive advertising. An example of companies that could be using this data are Google and Facebook. Check out this engaging video animation  created by Common Sense Media that sums up the digital footprint in a succinct way.

If you haven’t read the Children’s Commissioner report called ‘Growing up Digital’ it’s worth a read as they reference Instagram’s 17 page, 5000 word T&C’s that children were expected to understand and translate them into child’s speak to help children understand exactly what they are signing up to.


This is the ‘publicly-traceable’ footprint that grows as you share information across the internet which includes all types of social media and commercial websites. Many people don’t think of social media activity in this way but as parents bringing up children in a hyper-connected world whilst grappling with the plethora of new chat and photo sharing apps, it’s very important to keep an eye on these communication channels and activity.

This type of footprint can be very complex as it’s not only about what you post, like, share online but also what others post, share and comment on about you online, this could be as simple as friends or family but what if it’s someone pretending to be you. The area around employability and Online Reputational Information is a deep and complex one, the way we find, use, interpret and share information is constantly evolving.

Know Your Child’s Data Protection Rights

Digital footprint - biometric data

GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) which came into force on 25th May 2018, there is a provision under Article 17 called ‘The right to be forgotten’ also known as ‘the right to erasure’.  This requires companies to remove any personal data from any records which they no longer have a legitimate purpose for retaining. Recital 65 of the GDPR says that the right to erasure “is relevant in particular where the data subject has given his or her consent as a child and is not fully aware of the risks involved by the processing, and later wants to remove such personal data, especially on the internet. The data subject should be able to exercise that right notwithstanding the fact that he or she is no longer a child….” See the ICO’s guidance on children’s privacy.

An example of exercising this right could be a call on the Social Media giants and smaller companies to remove historical posts made in childhood that no longer represent the view and opinions of the person as they grow. This is a huge win for a children’s privacy as they look to stand on their own two feet, moving into higher education and the workforce without an outdated tech legacy potentially damaging their credibility. Exercising this ‘right to be forgotten’ can be done verbally or in writing and companies have one month to respond to the request.

Jenny Moseley, Director of data protection consultancy Opt-4 who has been advising on data protection for over 25 years says “Parents must take overall responsibility for their children’s internet safety, but to do so they must understand themselves first how the internet works, particularly Social Media and the benefits and pitfalls. Turning a blind eye is not the answer.  Children are very creative and know how to get around age restrictions when signing up and are not always aware of the commercial intent or harm behind many of the messages they may receive.  Marketers must treat any personal data that they suspect is from a child with the utmost respect and with extra security to fulfil their lawful and moral obligations, which includes of course, the right to erasure, something that parents might want to consider”.

Consent And Your Rights As A Parent

GDPR consent

Children are less aware and, in some cases, completely oblivious to the risks and consequences associated with handing over their personal data. The GDPR contains a specific set of rules which are designed to safeguard and protect children’s personal data. This is a welcome addition to the UK’s new Data Protection Act 2018 as it restricts the age at which data subjects (your child as an example) can lawfully give consent and regulates the way in which companies obtain children’s consent – from the processes for collecting personal data to the language they use.

Under the GDPR, the default age at which a person is no longer considered a child is 16 years old, but each member state can adjust that limit anywhere between 13 – 16 years of age. The UK has set its limit at 13 which I personally think is too young considering the different rates at which children mature and critical reasoning and evaluation milestones. Any company looking to collect personal data from persons under 13 years old must  seek consent from someone holding ‘parental responsibility’. Companies have been called upon by the ICO (Information Commissioners Office) to make reasonable efforts to verify that the person providing consent does indeed have parental responsibility. These efforts leave a lot to be desired and I would like to see tighter rules and restrictions placed on companies to investigate the age of the user.

From a child’s point of view, these new provisions to ‘rights to participation and protection’ do not mean that the child will be deprived of their online services, it’s more geared towards the limitation on young people (under the age of 13) on being able to sign up without their parent’s knowledge and consent.

As we continue to navigate a landscape alongside our children that is ever changing, as parents we must not forget that our parental responsibilities run across both their offline and online environment. Just as you would have rules in place for under age sex, drinking and smoking, so too should there be rules in place around their online activity. The GDPR can only deliver one aspect of a multi-faceted approach to protecting our young and there are  encouraging developments in industry looking at bringing companies to task over their exploitation of children for commercial gain.

Consent doesn’t just present itself in a straight line in relation to GDPR as there are wider implications in terms of publishing and gaining permission. It’s an interesting dichotomy when you are looking at ‘sharenting’, a child’s online presence can start as early as a pregnancy scan. It’s importing to encourage the right attitudes to all forms of consent, how can we explain to a child that as parents we can share a personal photo of them without their consent, but they have to abide by strict rules of what they post online. It’s a very interesting topic and one which we will explore further in another piece. As parents we need to think ahead to how we want our child to behave online and whether our own behaviour models that to which we preach.

Steps That You Can Take To Help Manage Their Footprint

As we continue to navigate a landscape alongside our children that is ever changing, as parents we must not forget that our parental responsibilities run across both their offline and online environment. Just as you would have rules in place for under age sex, drinking and smoking, so too should there be rules in place around their online activity. The GDPR can only deliver one aspect of a multi-faceted approach to protecting our young and there are  encouraging developments in industry looking at bringing companies to task over their exploitation of children for commercial gain.

  1. Know your child’s email address and password and encourage your child to stay away from suggestive (flirtatious, sexy) usernames as these can attract online predators.
  2. Encourage your child to use a profile image of something other than themselves so they are not easily identifiable.
  3. Regularly Google your child’s name and your name to identify photos that other people or associations have posted. Ask for them to be removed if you are not comfortable. Setting up a google alert is a simple thing to do as is searching using inverted commas as it will increase the accuracy of the search returns. When searching for a common name if you add a + sign before the inverted commas this will enhance the search results.
  4. Educate your child on how ‘likes’ work as they are an endorsement of sorts (albeit unpaid), so it’s important to understand that ‘liking’ things linked to companies and brands can make a user guilty by association. For example, racist organisations that posts anti-animal cruelty or prank posts to gain likes, comments and share but they link back to an organisation with strong views using seemingly positive and harmless posts to spread their darker messages.

    Although society seems to have gone emoji crazy it’s important not to forget these ‘emotiolikes’ still count and influence what you see/don’t like/love/don’t see in your feed.

  5. Keep regular communication lines open with regards to adding friends who post or share inappropriate content and help your child to vet/moderate and be aware of accepting friends’ requests from strangers. Socialising and meeting new people is a part of everyday life but rules still need to apply as they would offline.


Parenting in the 21st century calls for regular monitoring such as installing parenting controls, physically monitoring what your child is doing, checking histories and sharing accounts with younger children. Keeping the door open for regular discussions with your child as they grow is important and help you all feel more at ease. It is important as parents that we arm ourselves with as much information as possible with regards to privacy rights

Unfortunately for us parents, keeping up with technology is another string to our bow when keeping our children safe. It’s not a luxury but an essential and it pays to be aware how social media taps deeply into our primal need to be connected/social.

Be persistent in educating your child on the importance of positive validation both in ‘self’ and through external sources such as loved ones, teachers etc which hopefully will lessen the grip social media offers through likes, comments and shares as a unfiltered source of validation.

Gemma Johnson is an Associate of Opt-4, contributor to the Data Protection Network, mother of 3 and Founder of