We're not just business people or IT pros, many of us are parents, too. Is it good to use your tech savvy to establish an online presence for your child from birth? Or will it cost him or her in the long run?


Three years ago, Juniper Grace did something that thousands of people do every day: She sent her first tweet on Twitter.

She also did something else that day that is equally commonplace: She was born.

Juniper – who you can follow at @junipergrace – is part of a growing demographic in our ultra-wired world: Children with an online presence, but who have no idea what either “online” or “presence” actually mean.

Now a precocious toddler, Juniper’s Twitter account is hardly unique. Parents now regularly set up infants and even fetuses with their own email accounts, reserve Facebook pages for them, set up blogs, and purchase vanity URLs for their names. One study says that a whopping 81 percent of kids have some kind of online presence before they turn two.

In a world where you are increasingly your own industry, reserving your “brand” online at an early age – even birth – makes sense. After all, what worse present could there be for a child than to find out, once she hits her teenage years, that a porn site is squatting on hername.com?

Juniper’s parents, Tom Price and Andie Grace, certainly had this in mind when they did just about all of the above before Juniper was even born. (In fact, they reserved not just the domain for her actual name, but also for the other name they’d picked out in case Juniper turned out to be a boy.)

And of course, Juniper’s early tweets were filled with nothing of interest to anyone outside her parents’ friends and family. Baby talk, food preferences, news of sitting up, and the like. So what if there are a few pictures of the girl on Facebook? What could be more harmless?

Well, if you listen to the chorus of experts concerned about children’s online exposure, plenty.

There is no shortage of pundits ready to scare the bejeezus out of any parent with warnings about how, when kids are concerned, the Web is nothing but a cesspool of risk, much of which your average mom and dad has barely considered.

Is It Paranoia If They’re Really After You?

Foremost among these arguments is the threat of abduction. It’s not hard to figure out, given a name and a photo, where a child lives and even goes to school, and any dedicated techie stalker could pretty handily track down your pride and joy if armed with this info. Throw in a dad who uses Foursquare to let the world know when he’s out of town or out with the guys and you have a recipe for an easy home invasion.

Babies on Twitter

@junipergrace

The other major theme is that of identity theft. When Juniper tweeted “born!” she provided crucial information to the world: Her name and her exact birthday. Again, an address wouldn’t be tough to suss out, and with that data, a crook has a substantial head start in opening a credit card account in her name – if not today, then a few years down the road.

Recent technological advances may actually help criminals even further. Many digital cameras embed GPS information into the pictures they snap, providing precise coordinates to your whereabouts (and, presumably, your baby’s). Geolocation services now baked into various social media sites – including Twitter – do the same. This is already a real-world risk: So-called “cybercasing” is the preferred term for the practice of thieves trolling Craigslist and the like for high-priced cars and jewelry, using location information in the photos to figure out who to rob. Why not kids to abduct, too?

Noah Kindler, founder of SocialShield, which helps parents monitor children’s online behavior, says even he’s been suckered into this world: His six-month-old son has a Gmail account, Facebook page, and (unused) vanity URL.

But he thinks the readiness with which people are willing to share intimate details and photos of their progeny – including a friend who posted a picture of his 12-year-old daughter in a bikini on Facebook – is a little bit crazy. He says, “These are things you wouldn’t do in the real world, but people do it all the time on social networks.”

Still, he’s cognizant that the actual risks of anything bad happening from this behavior are relatively small. “Anything invites risk. Riding a bike invites risk. Playing in a park invites risk,” he adds. As with all things, moderation is key.

Grace, Juniper’s mom, tends to echo these sentiments. Looking back, she thinks she might have overdone the baby pictures on Facebook and her account is now locked down so only friends can see them. She also no longer tweets anything except what Juniper actually says aloud, saying, “I don’t want to put words in her mouth.” After all, eventually she’s going to be a teenager and this account will be her legacy.

Price, Juniper’s dad, seems less concerned with any of this, and given a chance he’ll gladly rail against the overly protective society we live in. Says Price, “The Internet allows parenting by committee… and committees are notorious for bad decision-making. Voyeurs operate from afar and rarely act on their impulses. There are no hordes out there waiting for 15 years to rip off your child. These threats are just not real. We’re worried about someone abducting a child because they saw a picture online, but how many children out there have no access to food or diapers?”

Grace echoes that the vast majority of children abducted are not by strangers, but from people the family already knows.

The Real Risks

With all that said, it’s hard to argue against the fact that there is genuine risk out there in the world of social networks.

Consider the recent case of Britain’s DJ Ironik, who boasted about the value of his diamond chain on TV and then later tweeted publicly where he’d be. Ironik was stabbed and the chain stolen upon his arrival, and the police credit the Twitter feed for this.

As for kids, Cyberbullying is also a real phenomenon with a growing level of social fallout, culminating in suicides like the one in the Megan Meier case. Loads of malware is designed to lure unsophisticated children into clicking on it – “Justin Bieber” alone is responsible for hundreds of malware-laden websites. And of course, adults do regularly try to lure underage kids into sexual liaisons, a phenomenon so common there was a reality TV show crafted around the premise: The controversial To Catch a Predator.

But the most realistic risk to children may ultimately be something that’s still on the horizon. Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender, predicts that, much like we have a FICO credit score, “We’ll all eventually have scores to measure our health, dateability, employability, etc.” generated from deep dives into the Web and our social networking profiles. Would-be employers and potential mates of course already do this on an informal basis, but it won’t be long before this is codified into something that’s automatic and easier to digest, like a number or a letter grade. In fact, Fertik’s company is working on this technology as we speak. “If you have an online profile from the date of your birth then inadvertently you could be exposed to risk down the road,” he says.

So what is a modern parent to do? As Price notes, Juniper – and all of us – are growing up in a world where privacy is nonexistent. There’s probably nothing wrong with a picture or two, or even the occasional baby talk tweet, but everyone on both sides of this argument agrees: It’s up to the parents to use good judgment about what goes online, and who gets to see it. That means setting privacy levels appropriately, and being mindful that while controversy may generate clicks, it can also bring unwanted heat – as Price found out when he posted a humorous video of Juniper driving a car at Burning Man on YouTube.

This forethought isn’t simple, and it requires a much higher level of care than most of us apply toward ourselves. But who ever said being a mom or dad was going to be easy?

Kindler sums it all up succinctly, saying, “Staying on top of online behavior is now part of parenting.”

Dr. Spock had no idea.

Christopher Null writes about technology extensively for Wired, PC World, and Maximum PC. He was the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Mobile PC magazine and spent four years blogging about tech daily for Yahoo! His two children are not on Facebook or Twitter. You can find his running commentary at chrisnull.com.

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