Before the arrival of baby Zoe, Brian and Ellen installed a crib, playpen and baby furniture in the nursery, bought a car seat and a stroller, and stocked up on blankets, bottles and nappies. They had takeout menus for every restaurant within a five-mile radius and the numbers of babysitters for those bleary-eyed early days and nights.
But they also set up e-mail accounts, bought domain names and signed up for social media, creating what some call a “digital trust fund” for their daughter.
“We wanted to snap it all up before anyone else got it,” Brian says. “Instagram, About.me, Tumblr, all of it as much as we could under her name.” As a graphic designer and head of his own creative agency, Brian understands the importance of a strong digital presence for both people and businesses. He’s just doing what he thinks parents should do for their kids — create as strong of a future as possible for his kid.
Still, Brian says he got more than a few raised eyebrows when he told people what he did. “A few un-techy kinds of people were like ‘Why would you want to do that?'” Brian says. “A few others thought it was very ‘Brave New World,’ creepy in a way. Like here we were, baby not even born yet, and we were already planning out her online identity.”
Brian’s wife Ellen was one of those skeptics. “I could see the practicality of it,” she says. “But part of me wondered if we shouldn’t just hold off on all of it. She’s just a baby, after all.”
Brian’s original plan was to present Zoe’s digital trust to her when she’s ready and of age. But now he’s wondering if he shouldn’t do something with some of the online assets now. Is it too early to build her digital footprint? Is it even wise or safe? If kids are already living and being documented online so extensively already, why not start now? Brian and Ellen are with an entirely new set of questions about kids, online identity, privacy and other issues — and they’ve only just started to get baby Zoe to sleep through the night.
Unless you’re a Luddite, everyone has a digital footprint these days. Digital footprints are simply defined as the unique trail of information you leave about yourself online and on social media, according to security company MacAfee. Google yourself and chances are that something will pop up, even if it’s a simple Facebook or LinkedIn account.
We started our online identities well into adulthood, often constructing our digital selves as teens. But the generation being born will be the first to have some trace of a digital footprint starting from birth, as parents eagerly share milestones, observations and moments on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. In fact, four-in-five children under age of two already have a digital profile, according to GigaOm.
That prospect has some parents nervous as they try to figure out how much is too much — and exactly when it should start. Some take a no-compromise approach, opting out of even sharing pictures on Facebook at all and pointing out that it’s not fair to start creating digital identities for children that can’t even grant permission to use their images online yet. Others share everything — and even a whole successful group of so-called mommy blogs have arrived, where parents share the most intimate detail of their children’s growth and development online.
Brian, for one, believes we’ve gone too far down the digital path to turn back now. “Collectively, look at work, look at business, look at dating,” he says. “It’s all being conducted increasingly online. All aspects of life are being shared. Digital branding is only going to become more important as we get further along.”
In many ways, Brian is right: digital reputations are rising in equal importance to resumes, and our online data impacts what jobs we get and even what colleges we’ll get into. In 2013, one-in-three U.S. college admissions officers said they run Google searches and check an applicant’s Facebook page. And according to USA Today, 10 percent of 16- to 34-year-olds lost out on jobs because of something on social media.
Creating a digital trust of online assets is just an extension of the “share everything” ethos, a way to make sure as much of a kid’s future digital footprint will be under their control as much as possible. But looking at all those accounts, an idea popped up in Brian’s mind: why not start using those online assets and start his daughter’s digital presence now?
“I’m looking at parents who already keep a Twitter for their kids, who tweet out milestones and memories in their voice,” he says. “You know, like ‘Today I took my first steps and fell into a birthday cake!'”
Brian’s friends also keep a Tumblr dedicated to their tween son’s artwork, he says. “I have to admit, it’s an interesting document of his growth as an artist, kind of an evolving portfolio. It’s very human and endearing — you can see this kid really develop his talent,” Brian notes. “Why wouldn’t I want something like that for Zoe?”
Brian isn’t the only parent following this line of thinking. Media-savvy parents are locking down digital trusts for newborns, often for both practical and emotional reasons. For example, ABC News and ESPN reporter Darren Rovell told New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer he locked down Gmail and Twitter for his young daughter Harper as an “intellectual capital investment.”
Rovell got the idea from cyclist Lance Armstrong, who created Twitter accounts for his children Olivia and Max. In fact, media-elite parents, ranging from ABC Nightline anchor Dan Abrams to CNBC reporter John Carney, say they plan to lock down social media when they have kids.
Initially, Rovell only tweeted as a placeholder. But like enthusiastic parents, he got carried away, and his daughter’s account took on a life of its own.
“Instantly, when she was born, I was like, ‘Well, this will be funny: I’ll tweet about being born!'” Carney told Daily Intelligencer. “As a writer, it occurred to me that it’d be very funny to talk in her voice about things that are going on. When kids are really young, you spend a lot of time with them but they don’t really do very much. Tweeting in their name was a way of adding a bit more excitement to those early months.”
Most of these parentally-helmed kids’ Twitters start for practical and sentimental reasons, but many have become hugely popular. Harper Estelle Wolfeld-Gosk — the daughter of Today show correspondent Jenna Wolfe and NBC Nightly News reporter Stephanie Gosk — had over 6,000 followers on her Twitter by the time she was two weeks old, thanks to sweet, funny tweets like “Off to Mommy n Me class. I think it’s cute the way Mom always asks if I’ll be good from two to three during class. As if I know time.”
Brian loves the idea of a Twitter in Zoe’s name, chronicling her babyhood’s mishaps and misadventures. “Social media like Twitter is the perfect way to notch down all that ephemeral stuff,” he notes. “The first time she hiccuped, her reaction to eating baby food carrots, her evolving relationship to our family dog. You don’t want to lose those moments, and Twitter is the perfect way to log them.”
Brian says he has no delusions of grandeur, and anticipates only he and other family members would follow Zoe’s Twitter. But he also wouldn’t mind if her feed picked up steam and gained followers outside the family circle. “It’s not that I want Zoe to be famous — though, as my little princess, I’m very much like ‘She’s the best baby in the world!'” he jokes. “But I think having a strong digital identity early on will be more of a benefit than a disadvantage in the long run, provided it’s well-managed and we as parents teach her to be smart about it. I don’t think that’s an undue burden. I think that’s just going to be yet another thing parents have to teach in the future, and the earlier the better.”
Media experts agree, pointing to the increasing importance of online branding to career success. “These are the tools that I didn’t have growing up. It’s important to have your dot-com for your entire life. It’s part of your brand,” Rovell told Daily Intelligencer. “When do you become a brand? Some people say it’s for people who achieved something. I would argue that in some sense you become a brand the second you’re born.”
But Brian faces a major obstacle in developing Zoe’s nascent digital presence: his wife Ellen. “No way, Jose,” Ellen says about Brian’s wishes. “I’m sorry, but I get the creeps from all of this. I know Brian’s very gung-ho on Internet and technology, but I’m a slow skeptic. People get sucked with the ease and gee-whiz factor, but they don’t think about issues like privacy, or just the idea of whether it’s fair to construct this baby’s digital identity before she has a say in what gets shared or not.”
Ellen’s argument hits on many key points to the opposition. Privacy is a central concern for many parents when it comes to any issue involving kids and the Internet. Online predators are the new boogeymen, and can harvest data about possible targets from the digital footprints of kids — even if they’re minimal or protected — and can easily root out vulnerable or at-risk children to manipulate and seduce.
According to CBS News, one-in-five Internet users aged 10 to 17 were subjected to unwanted sexual attention and solicitation, ranging from sexually suggestive comments to requests to meet in the real world for sex.
Beyond online predators, parents like Ellen simply worry about making sensitive data public and vulnerable to unscrupulous use. “You see what security questions we have to answer now on password-protected sites,” Ellen points out. “Mother’s maiden name, the hospital where you were born, your first pet…all of that can be found now for anyone with Google searches.”
Ellen doesn’t want to seem hysterical, but if forced, she’d rather seem overbearing than careless. “I know Brian accuses me sometimes of being paranoid when it comes to things like privacy and security, but I’d prefer to defer to caution. I’m not as easy-going about putting my stuff out there, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” she says. “The idea that you could look up a bunch of random info about Zoe online, accumulated over the years — however cute, however well-intended — doesn’t sit easy with me at all.”
But Ellen says she’s more uneasy about the tensions and questions about identity posed by kids’ Twitter accounts and other types of online childhood chronicling. “I’m not going to lie, I look at the Harper Estelle Twitter and other accounts like it and I think they’re cute,” she says. “And there’s a part of me that wants to share Zoe’s cuteness with everyone, too. But I can’t help but think how irritated those kids are going to be to grow older and realize how their parents have kind of co-opted their digital identities for their own amusement.”
She’s also looking ahead to future parenting battles — and fears handing over future ammunition to their daughter when she’s older. “What if she starts campaigning for her own Facebook or Twitter at a young age, and I don’t think she’s ready for it yet?” she asks. “What am I going to say when she goes ‘But Dad’s been tweeting as me since I was born?’ What kind of hypocrite does that make us?”
Finally, parents like Ellen are perhaps uneasy with the emphasis on digital identities to begin with. “Brian’s really conversant with the idea of online branding because of his work,” Ellen says. “But a personal brand is not an identity or a life.”
For Ellen, the issue boils down to a philosophical debate about existence, identity and how to become who you are. For her, the self begins away from the computer and the iPhone. “I want Zoe to have a full sense of self in her real life before she begins worrying about ‘expressing’ it online. And to me, that means being free of any weird sense of being an online personality, or having an audience tracking her through social media,” Ellen says. “Getting digital before she has a full personality is putting emphasis in the wrong place.”
Ellen also worries about the effects of a child growing up with some strange public awareness. “I can’t help but think that growing up is already hard — and that the extra burden of self-consciousness that comes from online identities doesn’t help,” she says. “Say you grow up unaware of just how much your parents are documenting you online, and when you’re finally at the age when you’re exploring who you are, you realize there’s all this stuff already about you on the Internet for everyone to see. Can you imagine being 12 or 13 and realizing how much you’re already online? I would be freaked out.”
“Or, you grow up aware of how much of you and your life and childhood is being beamed out to hundreds, maybe thousands of people,” she continues. “I just don’t think that’s helpful; I think kids have the right to enjoy childhood, to be free and make mistakes and take risks, without worrying about an audience.”
The conflict between Brian and Ellen is a sticking point for a couple that otherwise shares very similar values on child care and parenting — and it encapsulates the competing lines of thought when it comes to parenting in the digital era. There’s no one standard — and not much information out there on whether it’s healthy — to guide parents. So parents feel very much on their own when it comes to navigating these decisions, and often it comes down to their own attitudes about living digitally.
On one hand, parents like Brian already lead very connected lives, and sharing online is part of their self-expression. They see the world as increasingly digital and want children to hone and develop social media and tech skills early on, since work in the future will likely incorporate these in some way. A digital trust fund, to them, is a valuable asset and part of their heritage.
In such a world, Brian asks, “Why wouldn’t you want to get started on having the strongest digital profile out there?” For him, getting a strong start and teaching kids digital skills — whether it’s social media or curating content — is something that transfers across different jobs and fields. And the earlier you become adept, the better.
On the other side of the gulf, parents like Ellen are wary of the rapid, vast changes of technology and are cautious when it comes to its effects on relationships and our sense of selves. They worry about privacy and the consequences of TMI online. “We’re always reading about how this person got fired for sharing this on Facebook, or how this kid lost out on this opportunity for something they tweeted,” Ellen says. “I just don’t think people quite realize how tangibly permanent this all is. And that’s enormous, and shouldn’t be treated lightly.”
After much discussion, Brian and Ellen ended up compromising on the issue of Zoe’s digital trust fund. Brian snapped up all of Zoe’s future online assets but only put up placeholders on the public accounts.
However, they decided to use Zoe’s future Gmail address as a kind of digital scrapbook, since e-mail still remains convenient and — most importantly to Ellen — private.
“Yeah, we got the idea from the Google commercial,” Brian admits. “We e-mail Zoe messages with photos and videos and memories, and we CC family and friends on some of them. It’s turning into kind of a treasure trove, almost better than a photo album.”
Even Ellen likes e-mailing her baby daughter. “Sometimes I just write notes at the end of the day, just recording all the little things that make her unique and funny. Things like the funny expressions on her face when she poops, which seem kind of adorable to us now — though I’m sure she would be embarrassed to find in a more public site [when she gets older].” For Ellen, the e-mail account strikes a good balance between her desire for privacy and the convenience and ease of technology.
Brian and Ellen don’t know when they’ll let Zoe take over her Gmail, but they laugh at the idea of what awaits her when she finally logs in. “By the time she gets old enough to use Gmail, she’s going to have about a million unread messages in her inbox,” Brian laughs. “But I hope she finds them sweet, and a testament to how much we love her.” ♦