SOCIETY: RAISING THE DIGITAL CHILD

Updated December 01, 2019

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Baby K made his debut when he was roughly the size of a large eggplant. At 28 weeks — two months before he’d take his first breath in the real world, a flat lay of his sonogram was posted on his mom’s instablog: a black and white visual placed alongside a letter board revealing his gender and due date.

Some 17K followers were regularly updated on his journey through carefully curated photos, starting with an image of the two pink lines signalling an hCG spike. The ‘fans’ advised, pitched ideas for the birth plan and led to an exponential growth in engagement rate. Brands and small businesses began to notice and sent ‘freebies,’ baby merchandise, collaborations and reviews for the unborn star. Baby K, albeit unborn, was already insta-famous.

According to an AVG study, 23 percent children such as Baby K have online births before their actual birth date. By their fifth birthday, the internet has their digital footprint documented in detail, archived in the servers of social media and cloud storage. Their preferences in food and toys cached by Google and Amazon, coupled with apps and smart devices monitoring their growth, health and mental development create a ‘digital dossier’, a term Leah Plunkett defines as the database in her book Sharenthood: Why we should think before we talk about our kids online.

Sharenting’, a noun added to the Collins Dictionary in 2016, is “the habitual use of social media to share news or images of one’s child”, including information parents unknowingly give away.

Are you giving away too much information about your child online?

Commercial sharenting, now a multibillion-dollar industry has resulted in advertisers like Walmart, Crayola and Disney flocking to ‘kidfluencers’ with large followings and verified profiles to endorse products. Six-year-old Ryan’s YouTube channel ‘Ryan’s Toys Reviews’ has simple videos of him unboxing and playing with toys, content that managed to rake in $11m in revenue last year according to Forbes. Taytum and Oakley Fisher, three-year-old twins with a 3.1m following, have struck insta-gold earning up to 10,000 to 20,000 dollars on a single post.

While critics may disapprove of parents acting as directors, stylists and curators, and “pimping out kids”, not all parents are commercially driven. Many began with a parent just looking to share their experience on parenthood — hoping to connect, seek and support, create awareness and even find humour in toddler meltdowns.

Anum, a Pakistani mom based in Canada, started her blog, ‘The Spice of Adulting’, to talk about adulting as a millennial and enjoying life after becoming a parent. “My objective was to encourage parents to enjoy life as parents,” she says. “To snap out of the ‘bachay tau pal hee jatay hain’ [kids grow up anyhow] mindset and encourage mindful parenting. Aleyan has been my perfect partner in crime. His monthly growth progress, milestones, anecdotes and endearing versions of Aleyan can be found on the grid and my stories show that parenting can be fun.”

Smarter technology makes it easier to capture and share intimate content in real time. From milestones to mundane moments, a parent’s need to share may be driven by the need for social validation, a means of reinforcing social norms and may even be a way to normalise one’s parenting experience, reaffirm identity as a parent or to keep far-off friends and family updated.

A Children’s Commissioner Report published in 2018 found that parents share around 71 photos and 29 videos of their child every year on social media. A 2016 study by Nominet UK found a child would have 1,500 photos shared by their parents by their fifth birthday. Facebook seems to be the most popular application for sharing (54 percent) followed by Instagram (16 percent) and Twitter. However, 24 percent of the parents lacked information on finding and amending their privacy settings online. Over a third admitted that 50 percent of their Facebook friends are online friends they wouldn’t call a true friend or say hello to in the street.

Content creators like Anam in contrast are more cautious. “I don’t share pictures of Aleyan that are close to my heart, giveaway his location in real time or are from places that we visit frequently,” she clarifies. “A lot of my content is carefully screened and doesn’t make it to my public page.”

Zara opted to share on closed Facebook groups, which are online communities that new moms flock to for advice on motherhood. “I would search them for reviews on gynaecologists, Braxton Hicks and whether I could eat pineapple because everyone around me kept telling me that pineapples cause miscarriages,” she says.

After Hussain’s birth, she found herself returning to her virtual tribe for support. “I shared my birth story, sought advice on latching, circumcision and even his preschool.” Bit by bit, Zara had given away quite a bit of information on Hussain — his place of birth, favourite book, school — to a bunch of strangers, content that could allow a malicious stranger who had managed to slip past the profile screenings and was willing to dig far enough, to gain access to Hussain and earn his trust.

While group admins actively moderate members and discussions, in today’s world even the most private of information can travel far and beyond the approved intended audience. But these spaces have also been crucial in starting conversations on postpartum depression, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), child abuse, Down Syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mental health — and a parent’s personal narrative is crucial for such discussions.

Hiba Masood, founder of Drama Mama, often writes about parenting ‘Beta’, ‘Beti’ and ‘Birdy’ but has refrained from posting their faces and names online. “It’s always been instinctive rather than deliberate. Also, it’s not relevant to the conversation I’m trying to have,” she elaborates. “Respecting their privacy and protecting their sense of agency as they grow older definitely counts but, for me personally, it’s always been a simple fact: I am not interested in putting my regular life up for display or public consumption.”

Hiba opened up about Beta’s autism diagnosis as she struggled with a confused, overwhelmed four-year-old trying to make sense of an uncertain world. “I was confused and unsure about what he would think of it if he came across it later,” she says. “Now I’ve made the decision to tell him when he’s older that he has something called autism. I couldn’t be prouder and happier with the person he’s become and I hope what I wrote helped other moms who were struggling with their early days. I’m okay with what I write. Everything boils down to conversation, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s why I am okay with writing about the kids but not sharing pictures about them. One breeds conversation, the other cultivates ‘likes’,” Hiba explains.

Parents also have to be cautious about other caretakers violating a child’s privacy. The Parentzone study found 33 percent parents expect others to seek permission, while 36 percent did not adopt this approach. Even schools, daycare centres and summer camps violate and share student information online. Zara informed her daughter’s school not to share images of her daughter online, and was asked to submit her request in written. “I was confused,” she says. “Why was it assumed that, by default, they had a right to share my child’s image?” Zara questions.

In Pakistan, safety includes avoiding nazar (evil eye) — a key factor holding parents back from hitting ‘Publish’ along with a fear of flak and judgment on their parenting style. The real danger, however, comes from geo-tagging locations, live streaming and sharing intimate details that put a child in harm’s way.

An innocent picture or a seemingly insignificant detail may be abused by hackers, paedophiles and predators lurking in the dark realms of cyberspace and result in digital kidnapping, sexual harassment, child pornography and even identity theft. Barclays recently ran a forecast that predicted that by 2030, ‘sharenting’ will account for two-thirds of identity fraud facing young people over 18 and will cost 667 million pounds per year.

The psychological impact of sharenting may influence the child’s self-esteem, causing them to seek approval or validation in the form of ‘likes’ and following to define their self-worth. It exposes them to unwanted attention and may make them feel self-conscious, susceptible to cyberbullying, distort their sense of public and private and may give a sense of being monitored while taking away their right to create their own digital identity.

Cloud hackers, screen captures and Google caches weaken our control on our content as well as failing to understand permissions and rights of apps. An image uploaded to Facebook or Instagram for example, legally becomes Facebook property. The crumbs of data we leave around for bots, create a digital trail or an extensive database collected over a child’s lifetime that may one day be available to his prospective partners, potential employers and insurance companies. It may impact future discrimination in health insurance, student loans and even job prospects.

This data, coupled with crafty algorithms, may be used to impact not just outcomes regarding them but, in a haunting scenario, influence and control even the decisions and choices they make. China’s recent introduction of the social credit system and Cambridge Analytica’s use of data mining, data brokerage and data analysis to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election, turn what sounds like a plot of the TV show Black Mirror in to a looming possibility.

Parents and policymakers are still trying to navigate these uncharted waters where rules of privacy and rights are still being defined. They still debate the conflict of interest existing between parents wanting to share their narrative and children wanting to protect their privacy. Children who grew up immersed in social media are now discovering their digital identities. France’s privacy law now states that a child can take a parent to court and parents could face penalties as severe as a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros if convicted of uploading a child’s image without his consent. In a world where old tweets can resurface to cause new battles, one wrong move could harm a child’s future. And if Baby K resents any disclosures, his mother might just be the one getting served.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 1st, 2019