Baby’s first Google listing

By on Dec 9, 2011 |

I published this post on the Guardian’s website right after my first son was born in January, 2009. Now, he’s almost 3 and can navigate an iPad better than I can. What reminded me about it was twofold: first, it’s campaign high season and not one candidate in the running has admitted tech-phobia, which was a big topic of discussion in 2008. The social web is with us, it is part of the fiber of our collective being.

Two, there is great work being done examining the impact of digital media on young children. But it’s very nascent and the jury is out on long term effects. As a parent, I’m very stressed by this topic and I need more resources. Do you?

Images of newborns are now sent within an hour after birth to friends and family. And when families live far apart, the immediacy of online communication is a powerful way to share in the birth. It’s wonderful to allow others to share the miracle of a very new baby, but it subtly changes how parents see their babies. Now, like so much else in our lives, we experience our babies onscreen. We view our babies both as our own, close to our breast, but also we experience them how others will see them, reviewing their images on a screen, on Flickr, on YouTube or in an online birth announcement. There is a self-consciousness now to the new family, because so much is documented and posted for public consumption. This is the first generation to have a Google profile from day one: will those baby photos remain public into adulthood?

In their book Born Digital, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser review the characteristics of “digital natives,” those who were born (after 1980) into the digital age – those who have never known life without the internet. These kids have “digital dossiers,” which begin with their first ultrasound and continuing throughout their life. By the time they reach adulthood these children will have rich digital files, ripe for privacy violations and information mining. The authors liken aspects of the dossier to a tattoo, something personally identifiable and often regrettable, perhaps a racy photo a teen posts on MySpace. Palfrey and Gasser ask, will “digital natives” worry about privacy as we know it? Or do they have a completely different view of what privacy is, shaped by the societal changes wrought by the digital age?

New parents today kick-start digital natives’ online dossiers. None of us blinks an eye when emailing digital photos of our kids, or posting them on photo-sharing sites. A characteristic of the digital age is immediacy of access to information. As the Shifted Librarian writes on her blog, taking notes from a talk Palfrey gave, we’ve shifted from “consumers to creators” in the way we interact with digital formats – it “seems self-evident, but presumption is immediate access because digital (eg, digital camera vs a disposable one); movie theater vs YouTube, print vs searchable text – [the] presumption of media in digital form [is] that it’s social and shared.”

When we meet our children on screen, and when so many of our friends and family get to know our children via the internet, does something once viewed as essentially private become public? I’m conflicted about my son’s online celebrity. The line was drawn when my husband posted a picture taken at about five minutes old, in which the baby was wearing (naturally) his birthday suit. Granted my son has no idea about it now, but there is likely to come a time when he doesn’t want his naked pictures on the internet, no matter how innocently construed they are.

The naked picture came down. The Google listing will last forever- will I be explaining our decisions to post photos of him in 15 years time? Or by then will it be completely natural to him?

This post is adapted from Baby’s first Google listing, a piece Morra wrote for The Guardian in 2009.

Image credit Stuart Miles.