Should your unborn baby have a digital footprint?

"What is private today is not going to be private tomorrow."
"What is private today is not going to be private tomorrow."

It’s become commonplace for expectant parents to share information online about their unborn children by posting pics of their scans, sharing gender reveal shoots and announcing the birth of their little ones. It’s also commonplace for these parents to share each milestone online as their children grow – a phenomenon now known as 'sharenting'. 

According to a 2010 study, more than 90% of 2-year-olds living in the US already have a digital presence. The same is likely to be true for toddlers living in South Africa.

In some instances, many parents have started opening social media accounts on behalf of their babies, presumably to take control of their child’s online presence or simply to get their timeline populated with memories from birth. It's also a way to update the extended family. It’s a nice idea, but what’s the danger in establishing your child’s digital footprint before they become of age? 

"You have to remember that, when it comes to social media, you’re dealing with companies that give you a service for free and, therefore, don’t owe you anything," says social media lawyer Emma Sadleir, director of The Digital Law Company.

Sadleir warns parents not to assume that social media platforms are reliable.

"What is private today is not going to be private tomorrow," she says. Having penned two books on the dangers of not being social media savvy, Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex and Selfies, Sexts and Smartphones, Sadleir stipulates that if you wouldn’t want something splashed on a billboard at a busy intersection, you shouldn’t let it exist in any digital format.

She adds, however, that there’s no gold standard when it comes to sharing pics of your children and that this is every parent’s prerogative.

"The most important thing is for parents to ensure that they have the most private account possible. Check your privacy settings, make sure there are no random people you don’t know following you or friending you on Facebook. Your online presence (or your child’s online presence) needs to be a private space."

Also see: What is sharenting? Why should parents care? Are you doing it?

Are you a sharenter or do you shy away from posting about your baby online? Share your comments, and we could publish your letter. If you'd like to stay anonymous let us know. 

At what age should your child establish an online presence?

"I think the longer you can keep your children from that space, the better. The Internet has no shallow end – so once they’re online, they’re online," says Sadleir, who supports the rule of thumb that children under 2 should not be exposed to screen time.

She also believes that smartphones should be banned for children under 13, as that’s the current minimum legal age for most social media applications, including WhatsApp.

"There’s a reason for that. These platforms are not appropriate for children younger than 13. The users need to be savvy and they need to be robust. They are going to come across dodgy content and dodgy people and they need to be able to say no.

"It’s a terrifying world out there and you’ve got to be quite smart to be able to deal with it safely," says Sadleir.

She notes that, while children in South Africa cannot be arrested under the age of 14, they can still be held accountable for their actions. Children as young as 12 have been proven, in some cases, to have criminal capacity, depending on their education and maturity.

"In terms of civil capacity, however, which is when one can sue or be sued, the minimum age is 7," says Sadleir. Though these children would have to be cited by a parent or guardian, they can still be held liable for their actions both online and in the physical world.

Also see: Just don't post videos of your kids on YouTube. Here's why

How soon is too soon for Internet education?

The jury is out on exactly when it’s okay to start teaching your children about the potential pitfalls of the Internet.

In the same way that every parent decides how and when to teach their little ones about sex education and 'stranger danger', how and when to start with Internet education is every parent’s prerogative.

However, your decision could depend on whether your child already has an online identity of some sort, through your online activity, or through family members who may be posting about your child. 

That said, Sadleir believes there are no bad platforms, only bad users, so it might be best to arm your children early with basic knowledge about Internet platforms and establishing a respectable presence online.

Chat back:

Are you a sharenter or do you shy away from posting about your baby online? Share your comments, and we could publish your letter. If you'd like to stay anonymous let us know. 

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