For several months, Cara has been working up the courage to approach her mom about what she saw on Instagram. Not long ago, the 11-year-old—who, like all the other kids in this story, is referred to by a pseudonym—discovered that her mom had been posting photos of her, without prior approval, for much of her life. “I’ve wanted to bring it up. It’s weird seeing myself up there, and sometimes there’s pics I don’t like of myself,” she said.
Like most other modern kids, Cara grew up immersed in social media. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were all founded before she was born; Instagram has been around since she was a toddler. While many kids may not yet have accounts themselves, their parents, schools, sports teams, and organizations have been curating an online presence for them since birth. 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.
Recently a parenting blogger wrote in a Washington Post essay that despite her 14-year-old daughter’s horror at discovering that her mother had shared years of highly personal stories and information about her online, she simply could not stop posting on her blog and social media. The writer claimed that promising her daughter that she would stop posting about her publicly on the internet “would mean shutting down a vital part of myself, which isn’t necessarily good for me or her.”
But it’s not just overzealous mommy bloggers who construct a child’s online identity; plenty of average parents do the same. There’s even a portmanteau for it: sharenting. Almost a quarter of children begin their digital lives when parents upload their prenatal sonogram scans to the internet, according to a study conducted by the internet-security firm AVG. The study also found that 92 percent of toddlers under the age of 2 already have their own unique digital identity. “Parents now shape their children’s digital identity long before these young people open their first email. The disclosures parents make online are sure to follow their children into adulthood,” declares a report by the University of Florida Levin College of Law. “These parents act as both gatekeepers of their children’s personal information and as narrators of their children’s personal stories.”
Preschools and elementary schools often keep blogs or upload photos of kids to Instagram accounts and Facebook pages so that working parents can feel like a part of their kids’ day. Sports scores are recorded online, as are notable moments from after-school clubs.
When Ellen, an 11-year-old, finally decided to Google herself, she didn’t expect to find anything, because she doesn’t yet have her own social-media accounts. She was stunned when she found years of swim scores and sports statistics on the web. A personal story she wrote in third grade was also published on a class website with her name attached. “I didn’t think I would be out there like this on the internet,” she told me.
Ellen said that while she didn’t find anything too sensitive or personal, she was frustrated that all the information about herself had been posted seemingly without her consent.
“No matter what you do, it’s out there for people to know,” she said. “Even if you’re just swimming—the rest of the world will know. My meet records are out there; now people know I’m a swimmer. [The internet] tells you where all the swim meets are, so that would probably tell my general location. It tells you my school. Parts of my story online were in Spanish. Now people know I speak Spanish.”
Allie was in fourth grade the first time she Googled herself. Like Ellen, she wasn’t expecting to find anything, since she doesn’t yet have her own social-media accounts. Google turned up just a few photos, but she was shocked that there was anything at all. She immediately became hyperaware of the image her mother was building for her on Instagram and Facebook. “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.”
Not all kids react poorly to finding out they’ve been living an unwitting life online. Some are thrilled. In fourth grade, Nate searched his name and discovered that he was mentioned in a news article about his third-grade class making a giant burrito. “I didn’t know,” he said. “I was surprised, really surprised.” But he was pleased with his newfound clout. “It made me feel famous … I got to make new friends by saying, ‘Oh, I’m in a newspaper [online],’” he said. Ever since, he has Googled himself every few months, hoping to find things