She ends with this:”All in all, my greatest regret is that I taught you how to read. I think we can all agree you'd be a lot happier if you were illiterate.”
Most parents today face that inevitable moment when their kids can see and understand their long, weird online history — and parents might not have thought it all through very well.
Lynn Clark, a professor in the Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver, has written about kids, parents and our increasingly digital world in her book “The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age.” She's interviewed families from many different backgrounds about their approaches to digital media and whether it's viewed as an educational asset, a threat to safety and privacy or something in between.
An anecdote from Clark's own home life encapsulates a growing tension between parents and children who, with maturity and agency, inherit the digital identities created for them by their parents.
“For me, it's only become an issue as my 13-year-old got a Facebook account,” Clark says. “Now it's this year that she can see what's on my feed.”
Late last year, Clark posted to Facebook a photo of her 13-year-old daughter with Santa Claus. If you are currently or can vividly remember being 13, you know what happened next: Her daughter was aghast. This photo, adorable to Mom, fun for daughter in the moment, was now broadcast to a whole different audience.
Clark says this is referred to as context collapse — what you say to your friends isn't the same as what you'd say to your parents, but on Facebook, unless you use the not-especially-popular friend list feature, you're talking to friends, parents, aunts, uncles, co-workers and anybody else whose friend request you couldn't bring yourself to decline.
The conflict at the Clark household ended amicably and with a new ground rule. “It's OK this time,” Clark's daughter said. “But next time, ask.”
“The young generation today has this issue much more than we do,” Clark says. “Fortunately, my diaries from my early years are locked away in a trunk in my basement.”
Facebook, Google and other players have changed that.
“Now you can do a Google search and find images of people going back through their lives, and people are more likely to stumble on that and look at the images of who you were five years ago or 10 years ago,” Clark says.
She says that her experience tells her young people have already adjusted to that, in a sense. They're more aware that they're living and growing up in public, and that they're not locked into one persona for their entire lives.
What they might not know is that whatever decisions they make about their online personae may be being tracked and sold, says Rob Shavell, CEO of Abine. His company makes DoNoTrackMe, software that helps Web users understand who's tracking them — and reduce the amount of information the trackers get.
“The average website shares information, when you visit it, with 11 other companies,” he says. “The danger for parents, and in particular for kids, is that your profile of your activity across a lot of different sites can be built up pretty easily now.”
If companies track a Web user from Facebook to a listing for a specific snowboard, and then to a travel site where they search for rates between two cities, that's already a pretty robust profile. Imagine that process multiplied by the amount of time you or your kids spend online.
“Parents should understand that those online files are being built up about their children,” Shavell says.
Schools and other organizations now have “digital reputation” education programs, informing young people of the risks of sharing absolutely everything publicly. But no such program exists, to her knowledge, informing parents of impacts from how they share their kids' lives on social media.
“I think that it is increasingly an issue of concern,” she says, identifying in particular children of “mommy bloggers.”
“There's a lot of concern about achievement, and about diets, on the part of young girls. There are a lot of things that parents kind of stew about in mommy blogs that could be issues later on, or that might shape how young people think about themselves.”
For example, if a parent blogs about one child's achievements, but not others' — because maybe they didn't achieve as much — is the blog, when eventually found by the kids, just another playing field where they compete? If a parent blogs about a child's developmental challenges, how does that affect the child when they later find it?
This digital era will mold kids differently, not necessarily better or worse, than previous eras. The question is whether parenting can keep up with the evolving identity, privacy and safety issues that come along with it.