A few weeks ago, my daughter Marina, who's 12, asked me to start mentioning her by name on this website, and when I link to her blog, photos of her on Flickr, the new blog she just set up with her sister, and so on.
Until now, I've been pretty careful about just calling her "M" or "Miss M," because while I'm personally comfortable putting my own name and information on the Web, that's not a decision I should have been making for my kids, especially before they were able to understand what its implications are. (For similar reasons, here on the blog I generally refer to my wife by her nickname Air, at her request.)
But Marina has started to find that annoying, because when she searches for "Marina Miller," she nearly always finds other people instead. She's starting to build herself an online profile—and the first component of that is establishing her online existence.
I was online around that age too, but at the turn of the 1980s it was a very different thing. In fact, no one expected to be themselves: we all used pseudonyms, like CB radio handles. And it was a much smaller, geekier community—or rather, communities. I had no Internet access until the decade was over, so connections were local, and each bulletin board system (BBS) was its own island, accessed by dialup modem, often by one person at a time. The Web hadn't been invented, and the concept of a search engine or a perpetual index of my online life was incomprehensible.
On a recent episode of CBC Radio's "Spark," Danah Boyd, who researches these things, noted that today's adults often look at our online exposure in terms of what can go wrong, while our younger compatriots and children look at it in terms of its benefits, or what can go right. It's not that they don't care about privacy, but that they understand it differently.
Marina is now closer to adulthood than toddlerhood, and her younger sister, at 10, is not far behind. I think that's a bit hard for any parent to accept, but in the next few years both our daughters have to (and will want to) learn to negotiate the world, online and offline, on their own terms. Overprotective helicopter parenting is a temptation—or today, even an expectation—but it's counterproductive. Just like we all need to learn to walk to school by ourselves, we all need to learn how to live our lives and assess risks eventually. I'd rather not wait until my kids are 18 or 19 and only then let them sink or swim on their own.
I think I share the more optimistic view about being myself on the Web because, unlike many people over 40 today, I have been online since even before my teens, and I've seen both the benefits and the risks of being public there. I hope my experience can help Marina and her sister L (who hasn't yet asked me to go beyond her initial) negotiate that landscape in the next few years.
That is, if they continue to want my help!