Growing Up With A Digital Identity

In 2017 we identified a trend, which we called “Digital Detox,” wherein heavy users of the internet and social media were choosing to unplug from the internet to reclaim some balance in their lives.

Comedian and Master of None star Aziz Ansari was an exemplar of this when he removed all social media apps, email, and even the internet browser from his phone. “Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there's a new thing, it's not even about the content. It's just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling,” he explained in the cover story for the fall issue of GQ Style. “I wanted to stop that thing where I get home and look at websites for an hour and a half, checking to see if there's a new thing.”

We expected that as Americans continue to be more attached to digital devices—the average American checks their phone 47 times per day— more people will embrace digital detoxes to regain a sense of balance in our “always on” culture.

Heavy social media usage and screen time are also linked to unhappiness, so stepping away from devices may improve mental health. For professionals, uninterrupted time off is linked to increased productivity

A new wrinkle in this world has recently emerged.

Children who have grown up with parents who are connected to social media and sharing their life since birth are now becoming cognizant of the existence of their digital life - a life of which they had no say in creating.

The family photo albums that contained scores of potentially embarrassing pictures (or to a teenager, nothing but embarrassing pictures) is now online, searchable, and like everything else on the internet, permanent. Now teens are finding out they they have a digital identity, but one that may not feel applicable or present to them.

The Atlantic has an in-depth look at how “the shock of realizing that details about your life—or, in some cases, an entire narrative of it—have been shared online without your consent or knowledge has become a pivotal experience in the lives of many young teens and tweens.”

The experience is summed up best by Alice, a fourth grader. “My parents have always posted about me,” she said. “I was basically fine with it … then I realized I was making an impression and I was an actual person online too, through her page.”

It’s been named “Sharenting” in a paper by Stacey Steinberg of the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. Her article “offer an in-depth legal analysis of the conflict inherent between a parent’s right to share online and a child’s interest in privacy. It considers whether children have a legal or moral right to control their own digital footprint and discusses the unique and novel conflict at the heart of parental sharing in the digital age.”

Children have little authority in the choices their parents make for them. From the benign like what to wear each day to the consequential, like what school or activities they participate in, the sharing of photos, information, stories and more is completely in the hands of parents. The life that this sharing leads, however, will far outlast most other choices they make.

The balance between the two is being tested in households across the country. Perhaps as social media continues to grow and more and more children grow up with their lives online, expectations of privacy will be nonexistent. Not all of the teens that The Atlantic spoke with felt that they were on the bad end of the privacy spectrum.

Natalie, now 13, said that in fifth grade she and her friends competed with one another over the amount of information about themselves on the internet. “We thought it was so cool that we had pics of ourselves online,” she said. “We would brag like, ‘I have this many pics of myself on the internet.’ You look yourself up, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, it’s you!’ We were all shocked when we realized we were out there. We were like, ‘Whoa, we’re real people.’”

In the end, this battle may just be another passing front in the ongoing cultural struggles between parents and teens. Like rock and roll, mini skirts, and “how young is too young for a cell phone,” the digital presence that parents put forward may just have to be accepted.

Or, as millennials and the generations behind them come to power and policymaking, we may find that the perceptions of privacy that seem established today become very different because of the experiences they have had with ubiquitous digital identities.