What Is A Digital Tattoo & Why Does It Matter?

“What if Andy Warhol had it wrong, and instead of being famous for 15 minutes, we’re only anonymous for that long?” – Juan Enriquez.

While you’ve probably come across the term ‘digital footprint’ before, this phrase is losing popularity after a recent shift in the way that researchers, educators, and policy-makers view online privacy and data collection. Many experts are encouraging people to instead adopt the phrase ‘digital tattoo’ which more accurately reflects the permanence of people’s online decisions and actions.

If you’ve not come across this term before, then the information provided below will shed some light on what a digital tattoo is and why it matters for you and your children.

What Is A Digital Tattoo & Why Does It Matter?

“Body art tells a story. You can spend hours studying the complexity of 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” – Rob McTaggart.

What is a digital footprint?

According to the UK Safer Internet Centre, “your digital footprint is the mark that you leave behind when using the Internet and can shape your online reputation. Your digital footprints are made up of the content you create, post and share; as well as the content that others post, and share, with you and about you”.

So, what is a digital tattoo and how is it different?

A digital tattoo more or less shares the definition of a digital footprint. However, while it’s fair to say that any time that we go online we are leaving a mark, data trail, or digital footprint behind us,  using the word ‘footprint’ subtly implies that this mark fades with time, which is not the case. This is because, for a range of different reasons, it’s near enough to impossible to ever truly erase something from the Internet. This is why the word ‘tattoo’ is a more accurate representation of the mark that we leave when we use the Internet because it is permanent.

Why does my child’s digital tattoo matter?

According to Google-certified technology educator, Rob McTaggart, “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”.

Children, teens and young adults are naturally prone to risk-taking behaviours. This is partly due to having an underdeveloped frontal lobe, but also because testing boundaries helps with learning. Few adults would contest that the ideal time in life to learn by trial and error is in its early stages, and far fewer could deny that they acted on some stupid impulses when they were young. Yet very few adults today can truly hope to comprehend the notion of having each decision made in your childhood follow you into adulthood. We grew up largely Internet-free (or at least in a time before facial recognition, sophisticated algorithms, and Big Data) and had the freedom to make mistakes and explore our every worldly curiosity without any real risk of it hindering our future job prospects.

Today’s young people are being charged with profound responsibility from increasingly young ages; before they even know which path they hope to take in life, they are being forced never to act in ways that could obstruct that path.

It’s entirely normal for a young person to want to learn about sex and to explore their own sexuality, yet – because the Internet is now so accessible – many of them are doing so through Internet-capable technologies. Unfortunately, this can have devastating effects on their current and future lives, leading to public humiliation, severe emotional trauma, and even being charged with a criminal offence.

Taking Control Of Your Own Digital Tattoo

The majority of our digital tattoo is formed by what we actively choose to share on social media. However, much of the information stored about us online is not actively chosen or even necessarily consented to. “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”[3].

People have a tendency to be more honest, vulnerable, impulsive and curious with Google than they are with their closest friends or family members. The question we need to have in the back of our minds at all times is ‘what happens if this private data becomes public?’

What Can Parents Do To Help Their Children With Their Digital Tattoos?

As Edward Snowden once demonstrated to the world, children born today will never truly experience privacy [3]. Each time we upload images of them online or tag them in family photographs, we’re already starting to etch details into their digital tattoos. While of course, as parents, we would never upload or publicly share information about our children that is not in their best interest, we also need to give thought to the permanence of the online decisions we make on our children’s behalves.

It’s also important to explain to your child what a digital tattoo is and why it matters to them. Ideally, these discussions should start from a young age. We need to remember that, despite the fact that young people today are digital natives from the moment they’re born, they lack the maturity and experience to effectively navigate or manage these issues on their own.

We need to make this a story of empowerment, which starts early in life, “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” [3].


1. Juan Enriquez, 2013. Your online life, permanent as a tattoo.

2. UK Safer Internet Centre, 2015. Create a positive digital footprint online.

3. Rob McTaggart, 2015. The digital tattoo: Think before you ink.


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