CNet reports that approximately 92% of US children have “some type of online presence” by age 2, according to a study commissioned by online security company AVG. This, of course, brings up interesting questions about these kids’ privacy as they grow older:
AVG Chief Executive J.R. Smith acknowledged that “it’s completely understandable why proud parents would want to upload and share images of very young children with friends and families,” but he urged parents to remember that they are “creating a digital history for a human being that will follow him or her for the rest of their life.”
Smith makes a good point. I don’t worry about putting a child in danger simply by sharing his or her photos online, but I do think that it’s important for parents to consider that their babies will someday turn into preteens and teens who might have some issues with their baby pictures floating around the Web. (See Lance Whitney’s Q&A with Smith.) Also, be careful about what types of pictures you post. Photos that may be appropriate for family viewing could be inappropriate, if shared with the general public.
Though on the one hand I can understand these concerns (and think they have some legitimacy), I think these comments also overlook the trends among younger people in terms of online narcissism and the relative importance of privacy. That is, they apply the standards of privacy and expectations of an older generation to those who, based on the present trajectory, are unlikely to share those standards. This sort of transition is by no means unprecedented. Sixty or seventy years ago, it was a public shame for a girl to become pregnant out of wedlock, often leading to the girl being shuttled off somewhere else to keep things private—or to a quick “shotgun wedding.” Now? The presumption is very nearly the opposite—there is shock if singles aren’t sexually active (usually with a wink and a nod, “of course you’re not”). Pictures that would never have even been taken in the past (or hidden if they had been) are now openly posted online by college students, who are quite unconscious that there are “things you shouldn’t put out in public.” The fact is that the social norms have changed dramatically with the present generational shift—at least as dramatic a shift as signaled by the arrival of the Baby Boomers (and their hippies, beatniks, etc.).
My guess is that these kids who grow up with such significant online presences will simply have a different perception of what should be private, that they’ll be even freer with what they post online (after all, every one else in their generation will have the same kind of “embarrassing” digital record, meaning it ceases to be embarrassing and becomes normative). They’ll likely look at these concerns about “what will they think about this stuff when they’re older?” with the same kind of amusement shown towards old full-body swimsuits or concerns about “mixed bathing” by today’s adults. I’d anticipate that the next generation, rather than pushing for more privacy online, will simply be even more narcissistic than the present Internet generation, sharing all sorts of things and expecting others to be enthralled with them. That said, the more of this stuff that gets posted, the less of it actually gets seen—greater saturation simply means more and more stuff winds up being posted solely for the egocentric benefit of the person posting it.
What’s more interesting to me by far is how the next generation will define their own privacy boundaries. Everyone requires privacy to some extent, so I’m curious to see where new lines are drawn—and about what. I think a reasonable parallel in this case might be the prostitute or porn performer who sets special boundaries (no kissing, for example) to preserve something as “special” for those actually close to them, since sex no longer has that sense of intimacy. I’m curious to see how these kids, who will have so much of their lives publicly broadcast (remember how special it used to be for someone to be on TV?), winds up defining and establishing privacy. The only thing I’m pretty sure of is that they won’t have the same kind of standards of 30 or 40-somethings today (and I’m pretty sure that college “party pictures” won’t really be all that harmful in terms of employment by that point, simply because of how ubiquitous they’re already becoming).