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Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 6/28/2014 - Updated: 1 month ago

How young is too young for a digital presence?

NEW YORK TIMES
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Hey, new parents. I’m sure you are swamped with this whole feeding, changing, trying to sleep, trying to sleep-train, child-proofing, and searching-for-child-care rigmarole. But have you started planning your child’s online presence?

Take Kate Torgersen of Berkeley, Calif. She has a 3-year-old son, Jackson, and 8-month-old twin girls. She registered an email account for her son when he was born so she could email milestones and anecdotes to him as a kind of digital baby book.

“We weren’t ever going to do a Facebook page for Jax,” she said. “It just seemed kind of inappropriate. We wanted a way to have something intimate that was also really convenient. Sending an email during your busy workday was much easier than going to a scrapbook store and trying to create a big baby book project.”

Some parents go even further — registering their babies for things like Web URLs, About.me pages, Instagram feeds, Twitter handles, Tumblr accounts, and email accounts on Yahoo and Gmail, all within hours of their birth.

It might be too early to call these behaviors a growing trend, but they’re certainly fueling a debate about how to handle children and their online lives.

But there could be a risk here. Should you post photos of your children on sites that can be seen by anyone, or even on private profiles? If you give them Facebook accounts or email addresses, are you starting a data record for them before they’re old enough to know any better?

Are you signing your child up for targeted advertising at age zero?

It’s hard to know exactly how to treat your child’s digital identity, but there are a few things you should know.

First, not every site allows children under 13 to sign up. That’s because of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. This law requires sites that want to accept users under 13 to follow certain rules about collecting or disclosing children’s personal information — including obtaining “verifiable parental consent.”

So, parents who sign their children up for Web-based email accounts might have to fib about their ages. And that could mean the information you use to sign up for that account could get turned over to third-party advertisers, in addition to getting targeted ads based on the content of emails you send.

Sending emails to a child is the most popular digital option for most Web-savvy parents, because it’s relatively private and grandparents or uncles or aunts or friends can send messages as well. It also secures a username for the child early on.

You can also sign your children up for Twitter feeds or give them custom URLs that aren’t based on their real names — say, a mash-up of the mother’s and father’s names, to obscure a child’s identity. Posting on Facebook to just your friends is relatively private sharing, as well.

Every parent has to decide exactly how to treat a child’s digital identity, but it’s important to start thinking about it early.

“It’s the start of a conversation,” said Liz Gumbinner, editor in chief of a parent-focused Web site called coolmomtech.com. “Parents have this fear about their children being online too early. But I feel like that’s a really generational thing, because this is a generation that’s going to grow up without any other option.”

Most children born in the last 10 years will have been online hundreds, if not thousands, of times by the time they become self-aware or start to use computers.

In Facebook albums, online photo sites, on Instagram, on Twitter, even on their own self-branded blogs and Twitter accounts — the modern child of Web-minded parents has a rich digital history all her own well before she starts to manage it herself.

“They don’t even have a say in it, and I think that’s an interesting ethical question,” said Kaveri Subrahmanyam, associate director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. There is very little research into how children will react to discovering a rich digital history about themselves once they’re old enough to get online, she said, but parents should be aware of what and how much they post.

“Parents have to be really self-aware and mindful of what they’re doing with technology, and I don’t think we’re at that point yet,” Ms. Subrahmanyam said.

Of course, some parents aren’t ready to buy into this digital world for their children. Take Lauren, a Berkeley mother of two who asked that her last name not be used.

Lauren, paradoxically, is a social-media marketing consultant. She said she understood the idea of securing consistent usernames across sites and even emails because it’s “tactics for having a consistent brand.”

But, she said, “the whole crux of it to me is about online privacy and feeling like, as their mom, it’s my job to protect them in general. With all the conversation around privacy, I feel like it’s my job to protect their privacy, too.”

It is a reasonable concern. But there is plenty of research that shows the digital world — at least as it is viewed by children — is generally safe, positive, even reinforcing, said Gregory Ramey, a child psychologist and author. “Parents need to be sensitive, but let’s help our kids become responsible digital citizens,” Mr. Ramey said. “Help our kids live in the world.”

If anything, a child today who grows up and discovers he has no photos on Facebook or Instagram might think of himself as an unloved anomaly. In an age of obsessive digital detailing, if a child grows up unrecorded, what is his identity at all?



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