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

By Rachel Buchanan

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.)