Inheriting a Digital Identity

By Priya Kumar
Pixelation of ultrasound image

Pixelation of ultrasound image by Andrew Malone / Flickr

In a rush of excitement, Shelby (a pseudonym) snapped a photo of the 12-week ultrasound she had just received and posted it to Facebook. Her family and close friends already knew about the pregnancy, but she wanted to announce it to the rest of her network.

The doctor walked back into the office, and Shelby immediately knew something was wrong. The doctor suspected a birth defect and advised Shelby and her husband to speak with a genetic counselor. On top of feeling overwhelmed and upset by the news, Shelby was consumed by a desire to remove the image from Facebook.

In a little more than a decade, sharing information about our lives online has shifted from a rare activity to a commonplace, almost reflexive, component of daily life. Our social media presence – the status updates, pictures, and videos we capture and post online – embody our digital identities.

Most people reading this essay had the opportunity to craft their own digital identities. But the generation of children now entering the world will inherit the identities their parents create for them. In cases where parents share ultrasound images online, that digital footprint predates even the child’s birth. What does this mean for the way this generation of children will conceptualize their own identities? And how, if at all, are new parents wrestling with this new responsibility for their children?

Shelby was one of 22 women I interviewed to explore how new mothers decided to share baby pictures on social media. This research, published in the Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, found that sharing baby pictures online offers parents a convenient way to stay in touch with family and friends as well as to document and archive childhood. These facts alone aren’t surprising. Ever since the camera became a household item, new parents have been prolific photographers. Baby pictures have largely portrayed the positive elements of family life. (Consider the last time you saw an image of diaper rash or a 3 a.m. feeding in a baby album.)

Photo albums and scrapbooks, whether analog or digital, depict only one aspect of our lives. They represent the carefully constructed way we want to be perceived. Social media broadens the audience for these personal reflections and makes them much easier to find. Children of yesterday had to dig through a box in their parents’ basement to find their baby pictures; children of today will merely have to scroll back far enough in their parents’ Facebook feed or its future equivalent.

What will Shelby’s son see when he scrolls through her feed, if he ever does? Despite the scare in the doctor’s office, Shelby gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She posted a second ultrasound image and shared her experience on Facebook, receiving support from others in return. Her son will see that outpouring of support. But he will also see a very personal story about his development shared with hundreds of people – without his consent.

Sharing information on social media helps people feel closer to one another, something especially helpful for new parents whose lives transform when a child arrives. When a mother posts a vignette about her toddler’s first time swimming, she is sharing a story about herself, her child, and her family.

Consider Isabel (a pseudonym) who used a photo of her son’s smiling face as her profile picture on Facebook. “He represents me right now,” Isabel said in an interview. “He represents what makes me the happiest, what my daily life is all about.”

Children begin their lives as beings intertwined with their parents. From the foundation their parents provide, children eventually develop autonomy and a sense of self. This process happens gradually; there’s no button to press or user account to register.

Like many aspects of parenting, there’s no correct answer when it comes to managing children’s digital footprints. Parents must make decisions based on what they know now and what feels right for their children. Emily (a pseudonym) occasionally posted photos of her infant son on Facebook, but she didn’t like to share much. “He doesn’t have a chance yet to say, ‘Hey Mom, could you not put that on Facebook?’” she said of her son.

One story posted online doesn’t shape an entire identity. But years of stories do, and that’s what today’s children will inherit when they turn 13 and can legally join many of the most popular social media sites. And those adolescents, on the cusp of their identity formation journeys, will be the first to come of age in a world where their childhoods were documented and shared online.

Today’s parents will be the first to navigate the handover of a digital identity to their children. Perhaps social media platforms will develop tools to let parents transfer their child-related posts to the child’s profile and let the child decide whether the information remains online. Perhaps a glut of information will bury the child’s baby pictures so far down the parents’ profiles that the child won’t care what images remain online. Or, perhaps text, photo, and video will become obsolete ways of sharing information, and the child will prefer to construct a digital identity using a medium we have yet to imagine.

While the effect of social media on children’s identity development remains to be seen, today’s children will certainly have a more robust record of their childhood than any generation that came before. What they do with that record will shed new light on the role of technology in self-reflection. In the meantime, what that record does for or to them—and their families—remains an open question.
This piece is one of two companion essays on the children, social media, and documentation. Read Tim Cigelske’s take here.

KumarPriya Kumar is a writer and researcher. Her work on parents and social media use has been mentioned on NPR, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times, and her writing has appeared in Slate and Time. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Michigan School of Information and bachelor’s degrees in journalism and government and politics from the University of Maryland, College Park. Follow her on Twitter at @DearPriya.


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