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Dirt in Your Digital Footprint: Online Reputation

Last Updated on December 6, 2023

Devious Licks of TikTok Challenges

My daughter came home from school one day and exclaimed: “Mom, you wouldn’t believe what happened today!”

Some boys in her grade had a bright idea to respond to a TikTok challenge to vandalize school property and completely trashed a boys’ bathroom. They recorded the process for the whole world to see, and eagerly awaited their Likes and Followers.

Guess who found out a few minutes later. The principal. An announcement came on a loud speaker for the boys to come to the office, and the hammer of consequences came down on the unlucky TikTok stars:

  • Suspension from school
  • Public humiliation
  • Thousands of dollars in damages for parents to pay

The boys were 12. Hopefully, they would learn from the experience and never do something THAT stupid again.

These bizarre behaviors have a name: devious licks. These viral TikTok “challenges” encourage kids to vandalize public property for short-lived online fame. This makes TikTok a load of money, while kids bear the costs. Because the question is: would the world forget their youthful transgressions?


Online reputation, once ruined, can lead to catastrophic consequences. The frontiers of algorithmic discrimination are expanding: they range from being denied access to education and employment to being shamed forever by all of humanity.

What happens when there is dirt in your digital footprint?

“I Did Not Mean It!” is Not an Excuse

It’s easy to make mistakes in the digital world. Especially if you are young and “did not mean it”.

Teenagers do not give a second thought to the fact that everything they post online is permanent and not private. The sheer amount of content they overshare with adolescent impulsivity makes mistakes inevitable – simply by the law of large numbers. Somebody would be offended by what they think is a harmless joke. And then all hell breaks loose for the offender.

Once something is out, it takes a life of its own. Deleting an incriminating picture or post is too late – it’s already been forwarded hundreds of times. People are outraged. Authorities are involved. “I was not thinking!” is not an excuse. They cannot take it back, and the record is permanent.

Kids’ online mistakes are criminalized.

It’s not about denying that they did something wrong. But the price they pay these days is too high: one misstep can ruin the rest of their life. They are labeled as cyberbullies and expelled from school. Nude pictures sent to a crush end up on the open Internet and land them with a sex offender record. Jokes about weapons result in an actual arrest.

With their immature brains and impulsive behavior – developmentally normal features of adolescence – teenagers mess up. A lot. That’s what teenagers always did. That’s what their parents did when we were young, and I am exceedingly grateful there is no online record of me at age 15. My kids would not be so lucky – for their generation, everything they do online can be used against them. As a mom, I am paranoid with my frequent lectures to my children: “Don’t share anything about yourself online!” As long as it is in my power, I encourage them to stay away from social media.

Colleges and employers routinely examine our children’s online histories. If they detect anything “inconsistent with our policies” in teenage social media chatter, our kids are not going to be admitted or hired.

Nothing would be forgotten, nothing would be forgiven. How fair is it to be judged at 26 by what you did at 13?

Too Late to Remain Silent

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you” is a phrase the police are required to say during an arrest. It is meant to protect the rights of the individual – presumed innocent until proven guilty. It’s the foundation of American democracy. The rule is based on the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution designed to prevent a person from accidentally incriminating themselves. Every lawyer would tell you that to remain silent is the wisest thing to do.

Except when the transgression has occurred online, it’s too late to remain silent. You are already condemned.

You already said everything that can and will be used against you.

No Mercy for the Young and Clueless

Catherine Steiner-Adair in her book The Big Disconnect writes about 7-year olds being expelled from school for using violent language they picked up from the media and clearly did not fully understand. These children need adults’ help and screen time boundaries – not severe punishment! Even Jesus said on the cross: “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!” But society refuses to forgive children whose young vulnerable brains have been damaged by digital media that exploits them for profit.

The age of incarceration in America is 18, and many states have lenient prosecution limits for juvenile crime, based on the common knowledge of child development – the younger kids are, the less they are able to control their actions. The state forgives children for actual crimes. But schools can expel them for simple online pranks. Something is wrong with this picture.

There is no mercy for the young and clueless.


Several students had their Harvard admission revoked for sharing inappropriate memes. A Snapchap post cost a high school athlete admission to Cornell.

Checking social media is fair game for college admissions committees. And what they find there can cancel out all the good grades, athletic achievements, and volunteer work students submitted in their official applications.

Once at college, freely expressing yourself online is a minefield better not ventured into: losing scholarships and being expelled for careless online posts happens all the time.


It does not get any better after college. There is a long list of people being fired from their jobs for social media posts. In a climate of political correctness, even the most neutral opinions could be misinterpreted. There is no way to please everybody all the time. And let’s face it: younger employees are not equipped with high levels of self-control, growing up as digital natives in a culture of instant gratification.

Once their lack of self-control leaves a permanent record online, their reputation is ruined.


With everyday activities increasingly being recorded, you don’t even have to post anything yourself to get into massive amounts of trouble. A recent scandal comes to mind: three young women insulting an Uber driver over his request that they wear a mask. The behavior was ugly. The driver was traumatized and justice needs to be served. But let’s think for a minute about the young women and their future. This one recorded incident of stupid behavior will define them forever. That’s what the HR manager will see when they do their due diligence on them as a potential hire – and there would be no job offer. Young men who could have become their future husbands would google these girls’ notorious “claim to fame” – and there would be no marriage proposal. No future children.

The consequences can be life-altering.

Dirt in your digital footprint is the data that pushes the frontiers of algorithmic discrimination to the new heights of human suffering. 

Further reading: How to Protect Your Teen’s Digital Reputation (from the Center for Online Safety)

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