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(Photo: Olinchuk/Shutterstock)

Pending Parenthood in the Digital Age

• August 07, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: Olinchuk/Shutterstock)

As a content strategist for the Washington Post and former media reporter, Josh Sternberg is hyper aware of his digital trail. Now, as a soon-to-be new dad, he wonders what it means that our kids can look up everything we’ve ever done.

I am a week away (give or take a day) from becoming a father. It’s exhilarating and terrifying. I will be responsible for nurturing and caring for another life. How long have I felt that I was barely capable of caring for myself? This is human metamorphosis, isn’t it — transforming from a selfish individual to a provider, willing to do anything for the safety and happiness of another in the blink of a moment. But what makes parenthood in 2014 different than, say, 1978 (the year my parents went from leading their own lives to making sure that mine came first) is that my kid — code named “Cactus” — will know more about me than I knew about my parents.

The day Cactus is old enough to use Google will be the day Cactus learns about Josh, not dad. Cactus will, at some point, come across my Twitter profile; my professional and my personal writing archive; my RateMyProfessor.com page; my life as a burgeoning rock star. That will be a frightening day.

Of course, there are many things Cactus will not be able to find about dad on the Internet. My Internet life began after I was an adult, beyond the struggles of being an awkward and gangly teen. Thankfully there is no visual proof of most of my stupidity as a teenager.

Our descendants will have an advantage over previous generations: They will, ostensibly, know what their ancestors, those who lived in a post-Internet world, did on a daily basis.

There is no record of high school parties. Like the one where I learned to never mix vodka, beer, and weed. We didn’t think we’d need to record every moment of our lives back then—there are no pictures. Yet, had there been smartphones and social media, you’re damn right we would’ve captured those youthful indiscretions.

There is no record of my 21st birthday. Though I kind of wish there were. From what I was told, I was fine until the ride home from Hoboken. Apparently I vomited out of a moving vehicle on the New Jersey Turnpike. And somehow left my belt and pants in my friend’s car. Why? I have no idea.

There is no record of drug experimentation. Cactus will have to ask me about that.

All of these examples are limits of available information. In order to know them, Cactus will have to engage with me, talk with me.

Everything from my adult life, however—from the mundane to the magical—will be available just a click away. Cactus will quickly learn about my likes and dislikes, my philosophies, even my contradictions. Cactus will see me in a more human way than I do my parents — at least much earlier — because of my digital trail. I didn’t separate mom and dad from Lynn and Jerry until I was in college, gaining a better understanding of myself and the world.

Our descendants will have an advantage over previous generations: They will, ostensibly, know what their ancestors, those who lived in a post-Internet world, did on a daily basis. I have no idea what my great-grandfather did on a random August day in 1914, but my great-grandkids will know—should they want to—exactly what I did on a random August day in 2014.

They’ll have a better understanding of my time, of my day, of me. Sure, diaries have been around for centuries. But not everyone kept one, and not many ever saw the light of day. Whatever we tweet or blog about will remain. 1s and 0s don’t fade like parchment.

WHEN I WAS YOUNGER I’d thumb through my parents’ photo albums to get a sense of what life pre-Josh was like for them. By all measures, it seemed better! They went camping. They traveled. They did things that didn’t involve diapers and crying and worrying. They looked like they were living the life. Their life.

I’d lay on my stomach, legs bent in the air and ask my parents about this trip and that trip. But then I’d learn that many of their travels happened after I was born; They would leave me with grandparents or a babysitter for a week. I like this plan.

Another big signifier of who my parents were before I was pulled out of nothingness and into this universe was their record collection. I’d rifle through their archives, pulling out albums that I wanted to play. I pieced together that my dad was more of a Stones guy, and my mom a Beatles fan. When I talked to my parents about music, I heard stories of Woodstock—stuck in traffic on I-87—and the Doors and seeing Jimi Hendrix open for the Monkees.

I had to ask my parents about their lives. Cactus won’t have to ask; a record of my life, or most of it, is available on the Internet. Cactus will see my playlist stream through my television connected via Apple TV. Will “cover art” or “album” mean anything?

Cactus will enter this world with seemingly infinite knowledge at his or her fingertips. But whether or not Cactus has the ability to find that knowledge, well, that’s something else.

Where my parents may have had discussions about the television’s role in raising their kids, my wife and I debate about the power of the Internet. We see our friends bow down to the altar of Apple, passing iPads and iPhones like communion wafers to their howling children, hoping the devices will restore calm at dinner or in the car or at a friend’s house. My wife and I say we won’t use technology as a child-rearing tool, but until we’re tested, we just don’t know.

Modern parenthood comes with a much different set of instructions than what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had. Every generation says that, of course. But it seems as if we’re light years away from how my parents raised me, with Sesame Street and Dr. Spock. Well, we do have eHow and Yahoo Answers. So that’s something.

Josh Sternberg
Josh Sternberg is a content strategist at the Washington Post and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and soon-to-be child, whom he hopes to one day take to Phish shows.

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