Digital Identities: Who Are You When You're Online?

Most people these days understand the fundamental rule of online privacy, which is that you don't directly write about other people without their permission. But isn't it strange that this doesn't extend to children, who are unable to give informed consent to having their information shared publicly?
03/20/2013 12:52pm ET | Updated May 20, 2013
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This February 25, 2013 photo taken in Washington, DC, shows the splash page for the Internet social media giant Facebook. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

A study by Pew Internet in 2012 found that parents are online more than non-parents, concluding that they have greater concern about what their children are doing online and adopt new technology in order to monitor, and that a growing number of parents are social media users themselves. Most parents of this current generation are 'digital immigrants,' meaning they learned to use online media and technology as adults; however their children will be 'digital natives,' having grown up with this technology from a very young age.

New technology and social media has done amazing things for the average person, providing the opportunity for anyone to voice their opinion, to connect to similar-minded people and to communicate with others across the digital space. Social media also has its negatives, such as the trend of people being dishonest when online and, conversely, of revealing private and intimate information when online. I've written before about being authentic in digital interactions (here), but an extension of this is the representation of children by their parents on social media and how parents reveal personal details about their family.

There's a growing awareness of the potential negative impact from 'oversharenting': how a parent's sharing of private details about their children could be harmful to the child's healthy social and psychological development. It's easily understandable why parents want to share about their child -- children do funny, adorable and sometimes completely frustrating things, and sharing these anecdotes provides parents with the opportunity to gain a laugh or sympathy from others. It is also understandable that people write about the things that they are surrounded by for most of the day, just as people who are focused on their careers frequently write about work. Parents can experience more social isolation than non-parents and social media provides an opportunity to connect with others. Yet, a number of experts have advised parents to be cautious and considerate when posting about other people, especially children.

Consider this social media profile: the mother's profile picture is an image of her child, there is very little mention of the father or other friends or family, and the majority of the status updates and images posted relate to activities or commentary about the child. Here's another example: a parent who after the birth of their child creates an email address and social media account, and then begins posting on behalf of that newborn child. You could be forgiven for wondering why an individual's online activity appears to be more about someone else than it is about their self. Obviously the purpose of the profile is important here -- a blog about motherhood which is located within a community of other parents is totally appropriate if that was the intention in creating that account.

Most people these days understand the fundamental rule of online privacy, which is that you don't directly write about other people without their permission because there's a risk of negative consequences; at least they would be angry with you about what was written and at worst there could be legal issues due to libel or defamation. But isn't it strange that this rule of courtesy doesn't extend to children, who are unable to give informed consent to having their information shared publicly? Is it because of an assumption that children aren't likely to read or understand the information, and therefore won't be affected by it? This belief is unfortunately short-sighted because it fails to consider that online information could be permanently recorded and that one day the child will be interested and capable of looking at this information.

Aside from the privacy issues, this type of behavior reveals an identity issue and loss of boundaries between parent and child. A profile picture is what we choose to show of ourselves to the outside world; there's already been considerable research and discussion about how profile photos are carefully chosen to show us at our best and how they also reveal information about our identity or our values. By choosing to show a profile image of their child the person reveals that they over-identify with their 'parent' role, and the focus on writing about the child shows they've prioritized the child as the most important aspect of them self, rather than discussing their self as a distinct individual with separate interests and hobbies. The ideal here would be a balance of the various roles that we all perform, such as 'mother' 'wife' 'employee' 'daughter' etc., and a balance of attention across the various life domains, such as work, health, leisure and social, as well as family.

According to Jacques Lacan, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, a crucial phase of child development is the 'mirror stage' which he believed occurred between the ages of six months to eighteen-months-old. It is during this stage that the formation of the ego occurs; this develops from awareness within the child of the differentiation between itself and the external world. Prior to this stage the child imagines that everything is an extension of itself. It is through the attention of the parents, commonly the mother, that the child gains an opportunity to see itself as a separate being by reflection from the other person. One of the fundamentals of psychoanalysis is the belief that problems in this stage of development will continue to occur in the social relationships of this individual throughout their lifespan. So, how does a child properly develop this sense of "otherness" when the parent has over-identified with their role, and the child is an extension of the parent's identity? The result is that the child will constantly look to others for reassurance or confirmation of who they are, their existence is dependent on their relationship to another person.

Parents have a responsibility to do their best to assist their children with developing into healthy balanced individuals. Part of this responsibility is acknowledging the child's right to privacy and their right to be respected as an individual, balanced with also monitoring and supervising them. It is also important for children to grow up to make their own choices about who they are and how they want to represent themselves, without having their identities formed for them by pre-existing information on social media -- a reflection of stories, images and opinions of which they are not the author. Access to online activities should be introduced at age-appropriate developmental stages. Assisting a child to set up an account or profile is an opportunity to discuss with them responsible and respectful online activity and empowers the child to assume ownership of their digital identity.

If any of this behavior sounds familiar for you, take a moment to consider how you can model appropriate online behaviour and support your child to make wiser choices online.