With the growth of ‘sharenting’, digital identities are starting earlier than ever – often before kids are even born. Is this a positive trend? Let’s look at the conflict between sharing and privacy.
The idea of personhood is something that’s traditionally existed in the legal, political and philosophical worlds. We can now add the digital world to that list. What is digital personhood? It’s your online identity. Your recognisable digital persona. And this modern concept is now even a reality for 0-2 year-olds – thanks to a behaviour known as ‘sharenting’.
Sharenting was coined as a term for parents who share the lives of their children on blogs and social media sites. It’ll be familiar to most Facebook users over 25, who notice their News Feed becoming increasingly dominated by friends’ ultrasound scans, newborn images and toddler updates.
The idea is nothing new – parents have always shared their baby photos and stories. But the exponential expansion of the internet amplifies everything. And perceived oversharing and a lack of filtering have led to a significant backlash against sharenting. Why? Some have seen it as poor social etiquette; others have focused on the potential negative consequences.
So what are the real risks of early digital personhood, and how can they be overcome?
The rise of early digital identity
Before we get into the deeper issues surrounding digital personhood, let’s look at the facts: who’s doing this sharenting? How are they doing it, and what are they sharing?
AVG surveyed more than 6,000 parents worldwide to find out. This research was carried out as part of the Digital Diaries series, an ongoing project that explores how technology is changing childhood and parenting.
The 2014 results confirm that digital sharenting is a cultural phenomenon. Our data shows that 80 percent of parents share photos of their children online. And they start early: 62 percent of parents have posted photos of their child online by the age of two; 50 percent of parents digitally share photographs of newborn babies; 30 percent of parents share pregnancy ultrasound images of their baby – an increase from 23 percent in 2010.
Pride is clearly a big reason for this sharing – the Digital Diaries results show that 25 percent of parents enjoy “showing off” their children. But the numbers also suggest that not all parents are thinking about immediate social fulfilment: eight percent of parents create an email address for their baby or toddler, and six percent create a social network profile for their child before the age of two.
This is clear evidence of establishing early digital personhood. Even before they’re born, most children have an online footprint; an intimate, personal record of moments and memories shared with the world – plus, in some cases, a ‘reservation’ on Facebook and Gmail.
The risks of digital personhood
It’s clear that early digital personhood is a powerful construct – fake online profiles of children can fool the authorities. But what’s the harm in creating an online identity for children? The risks surrounding digital personhood can broadly be divided into two areas: immediate problems and future problems.
The first immediate issue affecting sharents is that up to 40 percent of social users don’t restrict access to their social profiles. That means parents are sharing images and information about their children and family with the whole internet – not just a select group of friends. There’s a danger that these details could be ‘stolen’ and used inappropriately. It also allows much easier identity theft.
Then there’s the issue of social tracking. Cutting-edge technology means that photos are increasingly tagged using location and facial recognition software. If you regularly share family activities, this makes it easier for people to find photos of your children and discover where you can be found in the real world – effectively in real-time.
In terms of future problems, the first issue is that once you post anything online you’ve lost control of it. Even if you subsequently modify or delete your posts, people can still copy and share the original. What will your child think about that content being in the public domain when they’re a teenager or adult? How will not being in control of their online identity affect them?
The second aspect of potential future problems is that by establishing digital personhood through sharing your child’s journey practically from conception, you risk creating serious emotional issues in years to come. Could posts about your baby or child cause them embarrassment or humiliation down the road? Could it lead to bullying or confidence issues?
How to be a better sharent
Children are not equipped to understand the potential consequences of early digital personhood. They don’t know how the concept of sharenting could affect them down the road. They can’t give informed consent over their online privacy.
So what’s the solution? Clearly, many parents enjoy real benefits from sharing their children’s lives online with friends and family. And by sharing more carefully, both the immediate and future problems can be minimised. Therefore calling for an end to sharenting seems like an extreme response. For most people, responsible sharenting will be the best approach.
How does this work? Here are a few tips:
- Think about how establishing early digital personhood for your children could put them at risk – or lead to family conflict in years to come. Be selective about the images and information you share.
- Check where you stand regarding copyright; find out who owns the content when you post about your children on a website.
- Understand whether you’re sharing posts within a closed network or with the whole internet; edit your Facebook privacy settings, and make sure your blogs and social accounts are only accessible by the people you want to see them.
- Be aware of third-party sites gaining access to your profile on sites such as Facebook or Instagram. Services such as MyPermissions.org can alert you when this happens.
- Create strong passwords for the sites you post on, and regularly update them. Losing control of your account to hackers means you also lose control of the content you’ve posted about your kids.
- Some parents might want to monitor online mentions of their child – in which case you could set up a Google Alert in their name.
Ultimately, it’s hard to call the rise of early digital personhood a good or bad thing – it’s merely the next step in what we’ve done for centuries. What’s important is that it brings new risks in addition to new benefits. So be mindful when sharing your family life online.
You can learn more about these issues by reading the AVG ebook Parents’ Guide to Early Years Online.
Feature image by Nina Matthews Photography; supporting image by Roberto Taddeo