The Virtual Lives of Children

By StickyWikis (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By StickyWikis (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Since the first rudimentary Dos-based Prodigy chat groups, scholars have pondered about the effect of the online life on children.

Numerous apps exist for parents to monitor and regulate children’s SmartPhones, tablets and laptops. But the very nature of the Internet and the concept of social media is so pervasive that some things are out of our control.

Can you catch-all the tags of your child that other people place? What about the team pictures on a photographer’s site?

A recent story caught my attention about the changing privacy of children in our increasingly Orwellian world.

A Slate article  “We Post Nothing About Our Daughter Online” proudly stated the author and her husband post no pictures of their young daughter on any social media site.  Amy Webb cited the very real fears of facial recognition, profiling, and even future data mining when her daughter applies to college or looks for a job.

Webb set out a good case for keeping her child off social media, and brought up many issues  parents may not consider. She mentioned a change in Facebook policy where tagged photos can easily be scanned in seconds to see if they match others.

Webb spoke of a friend who frequently posted photos of her five-year-old daughter named Kate:

“Essentially, this means that with each photo upload, Kate’s parents are, unwittingly, helping Facebook to merge her digital and real worlds.  Algorithms will analyze the people around Kate, the references made to them in posts, and over time will determine Kate’s most likely inner circle.”

Webb asks the rhetorical question about her friends who are posting numerous photos of their daughter — “Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates?”

That, of course, is only a small part of digital life online.  The real issue as Webb points out after the silly question is college applications and the job future. This reminded me that some photographs have GPS locations built-in, virtually advertising the location of your child from the photograph’s properties.

This made me pause. While my child is an adult, I’ve been posting pictures of him years now, including one from 1991 where he’s dressed as the New Year’s baby in a banner and a diaper.  Fodder for his political opponent in a future city council race, perhaps?

Webb and her husband  — before the birth of their child — decided never to post any pictures or personally identifiable information about their child. They went a step further and created what Webb calls a “digital trust fund.”    The Webbs ran the name they had chosen for their impending arrival through Google and other sites to make sure there was no negative content associated with the name.

The Webbs have been incredibly pro-active.  For those without their foresight, it’s not too late. Scholastic Magazine offers great tips for parents whose children are already on the Internet.

The strange reality of our global media society is that we have to think about how and when our children will encounter the beast we’ve created.  I applaud the Webbs for their diligence in protecting their daughter.

All of us — parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends — must think twice about posting or commenting or sharing information about a child we know.

Amy McVay Abbott is an independent journalist from the Midwest, who focuses on health and rehabilitation issues.  She is also the author of two books, both available on Amazon.com, A Piece of Her Mind (2013) and The Luxury of Daydreams (2011).  These books are collections from her popular newspaper column, The Raven Lunatic.  Follow her on Twitter @ravenonhealth or visit her website at amyabbottwrites.

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