Talking digital footprints with youth

Since being awarded as one of the Internet Society’s 25 Under 25 I have been quite busy with different requests and such like. I was invited to speak to some young people at a primary school about digital footprints and online safety.

Talking about the Internet and its challenges is not something I am used to doing with such young people. However since they are going to be helping to shape the future of the Internet I was more than happy to speak with them. I was actually really curious of what they had to say about it.

I have done some work with this school before with a photography online class called Phonar Nation. Since I flown in and introduced them to the world of Phonar Nation, they have been using it in a manner of different contexts, including ICT. Throughout my visit I was with Mr Wilkinson who teaches ICT; he has been using different parts of Phonar Nation to talk about digital technology which I thought was quite neat! So, I decided that we could use photography as a way of learning about visual literacy. When pictures are scattered all over the internet, it is important that we learn how to read them.

Cory Doctorow By Jonathan Worth

Using “Telling Someone’s Story” session with the Year 3 class we read the pictures. We described what we saw and made narratives of what the picture could be saying. The children thought that the man in the picture above could be:

  1. a picture editor (because he is at a computer)
  2. an English teacher (because he had a red folder just like their English teacher)
  3. an author (because he has lots of books and is at a computer)
  4. a librarian (because he has lots of books)
  5. a publisher (because he has lots of books)
  6. a father (because there is a picture of a baby on his shelves)
  7. a collector (because there are lots of different objects on his shelves as well as books)

What these different narratives show us is that people bring their own perspectives to a picture and will read things differently. We spoke about the importance of using images with text and how a photographer can think about what to include in pictures to help tell the subject’s story. I told them that the person was in fact Cory Doctorow who is a children’s author, a tech writer, a blog founder and a father. The children did really well indeed!

Later in the afternoon, we had a year 6 class. So they were 10 or 11 years old. I asked them whether they can remember a time without the iPhone or iPad. Of course they couldn’t since they were born the year the first iPhone was released! Which in itself is pretty amazing really. As part of their ICT class they are making a short video about online safety for their parents with some top tips. I thought that this was such a great idea because the children are not only learning things for themselves but they can also share their knowledge with others. I was asked to come and talk to them about digital footprints… but where on earth do you start? There is so much to it and you can’t really teach people how to be ‘private’ or ‘safe’ online when everyone has different ideas of what these things mean. So I wanted to make it into more of a chat than me just chatting about stuff I wasn’t sure they would understand.

I started off asking them what data is. While some talked about personal data, another said that it is how you get internet on your phone, because many operators call 3G and 4G ‘data’ which is short for ‘data plans’. So I asked what constituted personal data – they said your name, date of birth, email, address. I thought this was amazing that they listed so many things that they think are personal data – especially when some online companies don’t think it is. Since they don’t, or at least shouldn’t have any social media accounts, I asked them what personal data they think they need to give Facebook to get an account. When we talked about name, email, age and a picture, I then asked them how they feel about giving that data to a company. To my surprise they said that they didn’t like it and that they wouldn’t want to give so many things to them because if Facebook is hacked, then that’s a lot of information to be taken.

The theme of hacking and cyber crime came up very frequently.

The children often talked about the Barclays bank advert about cybersecurity (which I can’t find online) that shows how someone can find out information about a person through pictures on social media… Clearly it is having a positive impact!

I also wanted to talk about data we leave behind that we might not conscious realised. First of all I shown them a data visualisation from Lightbeam (a Firefox plug-in) to show all the trackers that are currently on my browser. Visualisations are so great for evidencing how interconnected the web and its tracking is. I briefly explained that it’s through these networks that personalised adverts happen.

Finally, I asked the teacher to follow some steps on his iPhone to show the children how our devices track our location by default. They got to witness Mr Wilkinson’s reaction to how accurately his phone had tracked his movements and correlated which locations were home and work. Everyone in the room was surprised and felt somewhat uneasy.

If you didn’t take a selfie, it didn’t happen

I didn’t want to leave things on a down note – as these conversations can often turn out to be. We talked about when sharing data is a good thing – so as children their parents might want to check their location, not to be creepy but because they want to make sure that they are safe. When you’re young I imagine that this kind of tracking is very intrusive but I wanted to express (as someone who is probably in between their age and their parents’) that it comes from a place of love.

Some top tips I left with them is to look at the settings on devices and talk to their parents about what data they want to share and not. I also recommended that using a password management system is a great way of storing unique passwords safely.

I think there is a lot to be said for listening to young people. They’re smart and their view on the world is so so important. This trip has given me some food for thought to help prepare a secondary school for Safer Internet Day in February!

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