Should you establish a digital identity for your child?

Some parents savvy in matters of social media are establishing web and email accounts, not to mention usernames, for their newborns. (Minh Uong/The New York Times)

Some parents savvy in matters of social media are establishing web and email accounts, not to mention usernames, for their newborns. (Minh Uong/The New York Times)

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 wanted a way to have something intimate that was also really convenient,'' she said. Sending an email during a 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 within hours after birth.

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

But there could be 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?

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 younger than 13 to sign up. Federal law requires sites that want to accept users younger than 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.

Sending emails to a child is popular because it's relatively private and grandparents, uncles, 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 friends is relatively private, 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 of parent-focused website 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."

Through Facebook albums, online photo sites, Instagram, Twitter, and even self-branded blogs and Twitter accounts, the modern child of Web-minded parents can have a rich digital history well before needing to manage it independently.

Of course, some parents aren't ready to buy into this digital world for their children because of privacy concerns.

But there is plenty of research that shows the digital world — at least as viewed by children — is generally safe, positive and 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," he said. "Help our kids live in the world."

Should you establish a digital identity for your child? 06/20/14 [Last modified: Sunday, June 22, 2014 6:10pm]

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