There are many, many things to think about when you’re having a baby – what to call him or her, to breastfeed or not to breastfeed, Bugaboo versus UPPAbaby. It is a long, exciting and bewildering list. And now it has become that bit more bewildering. According to Randi Zuckerberg, prospective parents must also pay heed to the “digital footprint” they are laying down for their children. Never mind moving within spitting distance of the best school in the area, have you registered baby Joshua’s domain name and got him on Google+ yet?
Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Zuckerberg Media and former director of market development for Facebook, the social network founded by her younger brother Mark, was moved to make these observations by the birth of her son two years ago. Little Asher Zuckerberg apparently learned to say “phone” before he learned to say his own name. And when his mother showed him a framed photograph recently, he started swiping at it with his index finger, as if it were an iPad. Clearly, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
It set Zuckerberg thinking – aloud and in public, naturally. These days she is something of a social media sceptic. The conversion may be connected to the fact that she has a couple of books and a website – called, in the manner of a lame Silicon Valley romcom, Dot Complicated – to promote. Might we be a bit too plugged-in? Have we forgotten how not to overshare? Whatever happened to privacy? Coming from the person who helped to bring Facebook to 1.11 billion, these questions are on a par with Simon Cowell wondering if there isn’t a bit too much manufactured pop in the charts or Ronald McDonald querying the ingredients of a Big Mac. It’s dot-complicated, I guess.
The most striking observation to emerge from Zuckerberg’s fretting is not all the stuff about us being tethered to our mobile devices like a baby to a placenta. She told Woman’s Hour this week that 30 per cent of women questioned would give up sex for a year before parting company with their phone for a weekend; 50 per cent would rather spend a night in prison than deactivate their social media accounts. All of this we already know, deep down. This is 2013: “selfie” is the word of the year.
No, the thing that really sent a shiver down my spine when I heard it on the radio was this: “For the rest of your children’s lives, the first thing anyone is going to do when they meet your child is search for them on the internet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s just the way that things are.” And thanks to Facebook and the like, that search could bring up every detail of their lives from the minute they were born.
Even before, sonograms of them floating in the womb will likely have been posted by their proud parents-to-be. The average time between a baby being born and being shared on social media is 57.9 minutes. And so it goes on. The digital record is there and unlike the faded photos in your parents’ attic, anyone with an internet connection can access them at any time should they really want to.
It is for that reason, says Zuckerberg, that parents should be savvy and start curating their offspring’s digital identity at the first possible opportunity, until they are old enough to do it for themselves. How? Make sure if you put a potty training picture up, it’s taken from a flattering angle. Invest in some “prime online real estate” for your kids – domain name, email address, Twitter handle and so on. Oh, and don’t even think about naming your child until you have googled your choice to check that it doesn’t bring up any unsavoury hits. “We can’t often buy a house for our children but you can buy them a domain name and an email address,” reasons Zuckerberg. They take up less room than teddy bears, too.
Even Zuckerberg acknowledges that this sounds ridiculous. It is also potentially damaging to developing minds. It is not yet clear what effect growing up in a social media age will have on the next generation but yesterday the headteacher of Uppingham School spoke out about growing instances of mental illnesses among pupils. He partly ascribed the increase in eating and exercise disorders and self-harm to a life lived online and in pursuit of the perfect selfie.
Zuckerberg is right that we should pay heed to the online lives of children. But rather than buying them online real estate or ensuring their timeline paints them in a good light from conception on, parents would do better to remind them that it is the world that exists off the computer screen, that counts.