Concrete Footprints: The Lingering Legacy of an Early Life Online
3.16.11 | Today’s newborns will no longer have to search through scrap books and photo albums for documentation of life’s milestones. According to the computer security company AVG, 81 percent of children in the countries AVG surveyed have some kind of digital footprint by age 2, mostly images posted online. In the United States, that number increases to 92 percent.
The AVG survey (pdf) looked at the ways in which parents are establishing their children’s online presence well before the children get online themselves.
“By the time [children] can use a computer it will be easy to find a digital dossier of themselves,” writes J.R. Smith, chief executive officer of AVG .
This “digital dossier” will probably consist of photos and videos of childhood memories shared by our parents, family and friends. In many cases this will actually happen within days of their birth, by the time they are two they will almost certainly have images and other information posted online. That online history will be built upon and will follow them around for their whole life.
Picking up on the survey, Lauren La Rose of the Canadian Press set out to discover the motivations of parents who are already setting up domains, email accounts and social network profiles for their children. The story includes comments from Rebecca Brown, creative director and founder of marketing and media company Bunch Family, which co-presented “The Social Family: How Social Media is Changing Family Life” panel during Social Media Week in Toronto:
“When people want information about us for jobs, they’re looking for our digital footprint,” said Brown.
“That’s a legacy, that’s a thing to have and to grow into is your own domain name, a Twitter handle with your name, a Facebook profile with your name. And those things will probably become increasingly rare as more and more people are using those channels and those social media platforms.” [...]
“It’s sort of like you’re stamping space out for your kid because the likelihood is in 20 years they won’t be able to register a domain in their name. That domain will not be available. Ditto Twitter. Ditto Facebook.”
AVG surveyed 2,200 mothers of children under age 2 in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Among the findings:
* The average age at which a child acquires an online presence courtesy of their parents is 6 months.
* A third (33 percent) of children have had images posted online from birth.
* Almost a quarter (23 percent) of children have had their pre-birth scans posted online by their parents.
* Seven per cent (7 percent) of babies have had an email address created for them by their parents.
* More than 70 percent of mothers said they posted baby and toddler images online to share with friends and family.
Psychotherapist Alyson Schafer contends that the more things change, the more they stay the same: “I think we’re just sort of hyper-parenting in all areas. I think they just think that it’s like the same way you can get a wooden footstool that steps up to the bathroom tap with your name put on it,” she tells La Rose. “I think that’s just the digital way of customizing now.”
Of course, children’s stepstools are generally left behind the moment they’re unneeded. Digital footprints, however, may last forever. And while children themselves are increasing their use of digital media, it’s too soon to tell what the ramifications might be of assuming children will grow into identities already created for them as opposed to encouraging them to take the first steps on their own.
Speaking of first steps, that leads us to this New York Times story by Matt Richtel and Miguel Helft, which reveals that social networking is quickly become the norm among children under 13.
Pre-teen users of social media are lying about their ages to get access to sites such as Facebook and Myspace that require users to be 13 or older (in order to comply with the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act).
“Not only are kids lying about their age, but more often than not, parents teach them to lie about their age,” said Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft.
Ms. Boyd said this ran counter to the goal of getting parents more constructively involved in children’s online activities, which was one aim of the legislation that spawned the age restrictions in the first place.
At the same time, the practice is hard to stop, say Web sites and federal officials. Sites try to catch under-age users — “We are not burying our head in the sand,” said Joe Sullivan, the chief security officer at Facebook — but verifying a young person’s age over the Internet is a task that ranges from tricky to near impossible.
The Times cites a Pew Research Center study shows that the number of 12-year-olds using social networks has risen from 31 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in mid-2009, when the survey was last conducted. This page, however, indicates that 46 percent of 12-year-olds in the study used social network sites. A more telling piece of evidence is the experience of Victoria Lai, who is now 14 and in ninth-grade:
In Victoria’s fifth-period honors English class, all 32 students said they had faked their birth year to gain access to one site or another.
Victoria’s father, Brian Lai, an airline mechanic, said young people “have to have experience using the Internet. It’s the future.” He said Victoria told him she was going onto the sites, and he told her: “It’s not good to lie, but you can make an exception.”
Jerry Ng, Victoria’s 14-year-old cousin, agreed. “It’s one thing to lie to a person,” he said. “But this is lying to a computer.”
The concerns most referenced in the story include online bullying, contact from strangers and exposure to inappropriate content. Little discussion is given to good digital citizenship and the development of skills needed to deftly navigate social networks, including understanding privacy settings that manage to frustrate users of all ages.
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