In the cradle, but ready to rock social media

Some parents consider it important to invest in children’s digital future

By Kate Lindsay

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Thomas Pullin/The New York Times
Thomas Pullin/The New York Times

Published: Tue 18 Apr 2023, 6:14 PM

Last updated: Tue 18 Apr 2023, 6:15 PM

Sophie Kratsas was only a few hours old when she received her first email: a “welcome to the world” message from her father, Nick Kratsas. He had created an email account for his newborn daughter while still standing in the delivery room. This was 2014, and Kratsas, 44, had already noticed a dearth of unclaimed email addresses with a person’s full name without numbers, special characters or other concessions.

“I’m like, man, if I can grab this for her now, eventually she’ll be able to use this when she’s ready for it,” Kratsas said. A few days later, he created a Facebook profile for Sophie so he and his wife, Heather, 41, could begin tagging her in posts and photos. When she’s old enough, they intend to turn over the email and Facebook accounts to her, along with the robust digital histories that come with them.

Sophie, now 9, is one of many children in her generation whose digital footprint precedes her physical one. In an age when teens and tweens are more online than ever, some parents find it just as important to invest in their offspring’s digital futures, like securing their email addresses, domain names and social media handles, as it is to invest in their finances and education.

“Both the digital and children are sort of symbolic representations of a future,” said Frances Corry, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. “And so putting those two things together is really salient and anxiety-provoking as people start to think about, What is the future going to look like for my child?”

Because of this, she added, the way parents approach their children’s social media presence is most likely informed by the relationship they have had growing up with it.

Chelsea Moylan, 34, came of age in the early aughts when the internet was new and still largely unexplored. “Anytime there was a new social media, me and my friends were always on there early enough to get our names,” Moylan said. It’s a privilege she now wants for her two children, Josie, 2, and Franny, 6 months.

“I was like, I need to get them their names, and I didn’t want to have to put a dot in it,” she said. Franny and Josie now have their own email addresses and private Instagram handles, which Moylan used for only friends and family. She intends to hand over the accounts to her daughters when they turn 18.

Sapphiroula, 28, and Nicholas Condoleon, 32, parents and online creators better known as “The Condos,” made an Instagram account for their 3-year-old son Georgii using his first and last name — with no pesky dots or underscores — in June 2019, two months before he was born. But their younger son, Charlie, 1, wasn’t so lucky.

“Someone’s got Charlie Condo,” Condoleon said, holding his phone up in a video interview. “And it’s like some random dude!”

Most of these digital artefacts sit untouched until parents think their children are ready — but some parents are using them in the meantime. Matt Maguire, 40, made email addresses for his children, Sophie, 9, and Emerson, 5, a few months before they were born. He sends them messages documenting their childhoods that he plans to share as a kind of digital scrapbook when the time is right.

So far, Emerson has accumulated 601 emails from her father and other family members. For Sophie, that number is 1,198. It will be a heartfelt gift when the time comes, but one that requires some maintenance. According to its policy, Google may remove all of your content from any accounts that have been inactive for two years. Parents holding onto Gmail accounts, and the messages inside them, will need to ensure that they are logging in often enough to keep them afloat.

But starting a child’s digital footprint at a young age raises some privacy concerns. While email accounts are not public-facing, the ethics become tricky when parents begin posting pictures of their children to social media, said Stephen Balkam, the founder of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute, which works with leaders in government and tech businesses to promote internet safety for children and families. “If you do want to upload photographs, keep it tight,” he said.

A majority of policies governing when children in the United States can use social media platforms are based on the regulations set by Congress in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits websites from collecting information on users younger than 13 without parental permission. Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube and TikTok require users in the United States to be at least 13 to sign up for an account. On Instagram, any child younger than that age must clearly state in the bio that the account is managed by a parent or manager.

But as with any issues related to parenthood, Corry said, caregivers should expect the unexpected when the time comes to relinquish control of their children’s social media accounts. “It’s maybe creating an identity that your child isn’t going to identify with,” she said. “Would that parent be OK with their child taking those accounts that they’re being handed and deleting everything? That’s one possible outcome.”

Moylan already plans to wipe her children’s Instagram accounts before they inherit them. “You’re not going to want to be 17, and if somebody scrolls back far enough, it’s you in a diaper,” she said.

Anthony Garmont, 53, has already given the digital real estate to his child, and the reaction was anticlimactic. Garmont sent about 15 messages to the email address he secured 18 years ago for his son, Riley. Their content was largely sentimental, so he thought it would be better for his son to read the emails on his own.

But did Riley understand the value of his father’s yearslong digital planning? “He’s a pretty nonchalant person,” Garmont said with a laugh. So, in other words, not really.

Regardless of the platform, parents taking early ownership of their children’s digital footprint allows for a certain degree of control over this newer and more unpredictable element of life. “I understand it as a benefit that you can exert some sort of reputation management over your child’s identity,” Corry said.

And while parents have no way of predicting what role social media may play in the future, acquiring these accounts is a relatively low lift for a potentially high reward. “What do we lose?” Nick Kratsas said. “It’s not like we paid for it or anything.”

If he were to relive that day in the hospital room again, Kratsas would have done only one thing differently: secure his daughter an Instagram handle, too.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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