The Digital Tattoo: Think Before You Ink


We all have a digital tattoo, and if we do not choose how to ink it, somebody else will. Rob McTaggart discusses how we might move the fear-based cybersafety agenda forward towards a conversation about digital empowerment and supporting our students’ growth in an online world.

A hundred smelly students are huddled together in the hall, the younger ones terrified, the older ones bored, as an angry senior constable paces past the few brazen enough to raise their hands to the question, “Who here’s on Facebook?”.

He points his finger at freckled Tommy. “How old are you, son?”

“11”, replies Tommy.

“You’re a liar!” The police officer repeats this charade ad nauseum as those with their hands up try to pull them down without raising his ire. “You’re not thirteen. You had to say you were thirteen when you signed up to Facebook. You’re a liar. You’re breaking the laaaw!”

Another half hour of graphic stories pass by sprinkled with a dash of sensible online practise. The bell rings, the kids head to lunch, the senior constable shakes the principals hand, and the teachers tick off the box labelled cybersafety on their programs. Job well done. The kids are safe.

Except they are not. Lessons in fear are quickly forgotten. The students that feel threatened shift into survival mode and the learning stops. Those that do not, either think they know better or have learnt little more than a plan for abstinence from the internet. Principals, teachers and police are seeing more issues happening online than ever before, and the numbers tell us that what we are doing is not working.

Your local neighbourhood is probably quite safe. The online world is one giant neighbourhood, except you live next door to everyone. The best and worst of society are only a few clicks away and while a young person might be hanging out in parts of the online community that resemble Disneyland, a simple Google search can see them end up in the digital equivalent of the seediest parts of Las Vegas or worse.

So, it is little wonder that fear for our children’s wellbeing is where we have started. This may be the most pressing matter in education today. But as educators, it is high time we moved the conversation forward beyond a paradigm of fear and avoidance. Current solutions to the ‘problem’ of the internet are to create more rules and policies, ban students for poor behaviour, and block access to any parts of the internet that are not mandated, while doing little to support children in the bulk of their online time outside of school.

As educators, the solution is obvious – we educate our students and prepare them for a society we cannot control. Not once or twice a year but every day. How to go about that is a conversation we all need to have. Our approach to this is insufficient and not well thought out. The curriculum, even the new one, does not provide sufficient detail or framework. Nor the expectations that we really approach this thing head on.

We have all come to know the dangers of the internet, often through some of the more disturbing stories being picked up by the media. But perhaps the biggest threat to every one of our students is also their biggest opportunity. Every child born today has an online dossier. Thanks to their Facebook pages, there may be data stored on them well before they are even born.

You may have discussed this with students as a digital footprint. Footprints can be washed away in the next high tide. Online, this is not the case. What you do, good or bad, will define your online profile for a very long time, perhaps indefinitely. White hat hacker, Mikko Hyppönen, says it is now cheaper for corporations and governments to keep data on you than to delete it. Your online actions are permanent, and your offline actions are online. Facial recognition is already here and it is incredible. Governments and corporations, including Facebook, probably already have your face in databases that include tens of millions of people. This is what Hyppönen is referencing when he says that George Orwell was an optimist. A digital tattoo speaks to that permanency.

Body art tells a story. You can spend hours studying the complexity in tattoos. Similarly, a digital tattoo tells a story of you. But if you do not ink your own story, someone else will. We no longer have the opportunity to stay anonymous. As Edward Snowden showed us and then told us, kids born today will never experience privacy. Juan Enriquez, when introducing the concept of digital tattoos during a TED talk, says we have flipped Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame to be 15 minutes of anonymity. The truth is, we no longer get even that.

There are many examples of employers and recruiters using the internet to background check people and discount them based on what they find. These pages stay online indefinitely. Even those things we consider private today may become part of our visible digital tattoo tomorrow. Just ask any of the ‘victims’ of the recent Snapchat hack, who assumed their explicit images would be removed from servers. Anything can be copied. Nothing is temporary. Everything is hackable. With technologies becoming cheaper, access will gradually become the lesser issue. Perhaps the next true underclass in developed countries will be young people who are not culturally cultivated as digital citizens; those students who have not been supported in inking their own positive digital tattoo.

Much of our digital tattoo is formed by our own active choices, for instance, what we choose to share on social media. However, much of what is stored online about us is not actively chosen. When we give websites our address, when we make a credit card purchase or write a friend an email, all of this data is saved somewhere. The convenience of our modern lifestyles paves the way for a passivity about our big data. We are more honest with search engines than we are with our own families, and they know more about us than anybody else. So what happens when this private data becomes public? It becomes part of our outward facing digital tattoo. Our opaque lives are all of a sudden laid bare to everyone. Digital citizenship is about regular citizenship more than ever, and young people need to be engaged online to have any control of their digital tattoo. If they are not part of the conversation, they can only be victims to these changes.

Young people might be digital natives but they lack the maturity and experience to manage these issues on their own. This needs to be a story of empowerment, with schools supporting students to establish a strong and positive online presence that will stand out and put their image in good stead. Education needs to get in early, before a student ends up with the digital equivalent of a ‘tramp stamp’, regretted yet permanent. There are things that can be done to curate a better digital tattoo, even if you share names with a tyrant or a serial killer. As Seth Godin puts it, “The best plan is to overload Google with a long tail of good stuff and to always act as if you’re on Candid Camera, because you are”.

A good time to support young people to cultivate their digital tattoo is early. Until then, others are developing it for them. They are already being inked and they are unconsciously inking themselves, particularly through gaming and social networks. Just as in other activities, we want to protect young students without stifling their potential. When a child is learning to walk, we do not leave them near a road unattended. When they are sixteen, it would be troubling if we were still holding their hand to cross the road.

As part of this discussion, we will need to decide when it is appropriate to use certain tools, and when to remove each set of scaffolds and protections. To do this, we can be guided by the law but also by the students’ own activities. We would hardly give a drivers licence to someone who has not been taught to drive and has not passed an accreditation. Why do we expect students to use online tools appropriately when they have not done the same?

As part of the conversation, let us create a continuum and set of standards for our students to learn digital citizenship from, including a set of scaffolds, and norms for when to apply and remove them. Questions will arise such as when is a child old enough to use open social networks? When should we allow students to search for images on Google? For what ages should we unblock YouTube? When is a student old enough to expect them to attribute the author of a Creative Commons work?

In law, we can be guided by age but should not rely on it to tell us of a student’s readiness. Social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, require people signing up to be at least 13 years of age. The reason for this is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPA) in the USA. This law is about protecting the privacy of young people. It is about data retention and marketing but was created before the advent of social networks. It gives no real insight into the social maturity of young people to use these tools. For that, we need explicit teaching, practice and, finally, rites of passage.

In Steve Biddulph’s book, Manhood, he pushes an agenda for boys to make transitions through boyhood by completing set tasks, or rituals. These milestones ensure a respect for new knowledge and greater responsibility with new powers. These rites of passage also work as an accreditation, where only students who show readiness for new responsibilities will receive them. Imagine a classroom of boys and girls using a closed social network, such as Edmodo, who have to show an ongoing use of digital etiquette and the ability to decide what is appropriate to share online before they are granted the use of Facebook at school and at home. Clearly, this needs to be an ongoing agreement between students, teachers and parents. This is not a once or twice a year conversation. This is something that needs to be constantly part of what we do; an ongoing dialogue, taught explicitly and tackled throughout the curriculum, experienced practically in every activity.

New technologies provide amazing opportunities to create and share. A serious ongoing dialogue between educators, parents and students is required to ensure the vast majority of our students are as safe as they can be online and are living productive, positive digital lives. Let us move beyond fear mongering and create a new continuum for students to develop an online tattoo that is uniquely them and will benefit them in the future. Mike Ribble’s nine elements of digital citizenship would be an excellent framework to begin this continuum. To meet this challenge, digital citizenship will need to be part of all we do in schools as well as being taught explicitly.

Resources to support teachers in implementing digital citizenship are available at

Rob McTaggart teaches Technologies from K-6 in Newcastle, Australia. He is a Google Certified Teacher who loves using technology to help students engage and create with the world around them. Rob is a co-moderator for #aussieED. He also leads a Google Educator Group, GEG Hunter, and runs a Code Club. He gets to teach 580 amazing kids every week, which makes him the luckiest teacher in the world.


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Rob McTaggart

Rob McTaggart

Teacher: K-6 Technologies
Rob McTaggart teaches Technologies from K-6 in Newcastle, Australia. He is a Google Certified Teacher who loves using technology to help students engage and create with the world around them. Rob is a co-moderator for #aussieED. He also leads a Google Educator Group, GEG Hunter, and runs a Code Club. He gets to teach 580 amazing kids every week, which makes him the luckiest teacher in the world.
Rob McTaggart

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