A Digital Life Begins Before Birth
Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Close your eyes and imagine (well, close your pretend eyes and imagine) the child turning 10 today. When did that child’s digital life begin? Did the expecting parents email a scan of the ultrasound picture? (“See that little bit right there? We’re having a boy!”) Were newborn pictures posted to Facebook or MySpace? Perhaps a tweet to announce the birth? Were any of those posts or tweets or emails passed along to others in some way? Did any of those pictures end up in the hand of strangers? (“Cute baby. Who is she? He? She? No, it’s a he. I think.”)
A child’s digital dossier is created long before they are able to consent to their “image” being distributed to a global network of friends, family, and possibly strangers. Globally distributed and then integrated into a digital archive that stores, remembers, and shares everything across a lifetime.
Unlike a generation ago, a child’s digital life begins at an early age (and not with MySpace) and is something usually imposed on them by well-meaning and excited parents. Newborn pictures, first birthday, and first smiles. Innocent, but archived nonetheless.
By the time a child is 4 or 5 years old, there could be hundreds or even thousands of pictures and captions detailing every part of life; a digital public scrapbook starring the person who had the least amount of control of the message. And, unlike a generation ago, it’s a public presentation.
(Can you imagine if you couldn’t hide all the embarrassing photos of you that were memorialized in scrapbooks under your parents’ coffee table when you were young? The regrettable eye glasses choice. The braces. The headgear!)
Kids today know that they have an image and identity that lives outside their bodies and that they often don’t control how it is constructed or used. Some kids will assume “poses” as they preen for the camera just like their celebrity idols do, while others duck for cover.
Kids know the game long before they can articulate that they’re even playing it.
Because of this reality, it’s vital that parental guidance begin early. The decisions a parent makes about their child’s early digital footprint are solely of the parent’s creation and are more reflective of them than the child.
Adults have a responsibility to look out for children’s digital lives in the same way they do their physical ones. Parents are already involved in children’s virtual “selves” (they created the first one, after all), so their job is to remain engaged.
In future articles, we’ll talk about strategies for how to remain engaged without having to sit in the back seat of our kids’ lives. They need guidance, not surveillance.