The other day I put a photo of my 5-year-old daughter holding a friend’s baby on Facebook. I tagged the baby’s parents and waited for the likes to roll in on an adorable shot of my clearly smitten kid with their gorgeous new baby.
Then I noticed that the mom Jill* had untagged herself — and I thought, Huh, that’s odd. I messaged her asking if she didn’t like the picture and told her that I would take it down if she wanted (not at all expecting that would actually be the case). Jill replied saying that she didn’t want her son having a “social media identity” and asked me to kindly take it down.
I duly did, of course. But I was kind of shocked and, to be completely honest, a little bit offended. What did this say about me as a parent as I frequently put up photos of my own children? I do so mainly because all of our relatives live far away from us in Australia and Ireland, so it’s just an easy way for us to show them all how our kids are doing.
I am careful that I never photograph my kids in the bath or in any way undressed — they’re always just cute photos of them enjoying parties, days out, and various adventures. My privacy settings are at maximum security so only my friends can see my photos and I’ve never been asked to take down a photo before.
The more I thought about it, the more confused I became … because unless the child was one belonging to a celebrity, what’s the harm?
One of my good friends is the sister of one of the most famous British actors in Hollywood and she is careful never to publish photos of her brother or her niece on any social media platform. In fact, she even asked me not to reveal the name of her brother’s child on any blogs I published and of course I agreed, because for her brother, privacy is of the utmost importance: understandable when the paparazzi follow his every move and photos of him and his family are worth big money.
But why the need for such privacy for your average Joe?
Well, after some investigation, it seems that my friend Jill has a right to be concerned for many reasons.
Firstly, (something that never occurred to me) those photos create an online trail that will follow your child for the rest of their lives. So whatever images or stories you share (as funny and as endearing as they are at the time) might not be appreciated when they could be dredged up at their 16th birthday party … or found by a nosy colleague in their brand new job at the age of 21. Whatever decisions you are making for your kids NOW will be around in many years to come, so you have to be aware of your choices and the potential for later consequences.
You could also be “branding” your child without even realizing it. By captioning your child as “grumpy,” “shy,” or “a trouble-maker,” you are potentially shaping your child’s perception of themselves, especially if the photo is open to comments and opinions of others. There is certainly a case for waiting until your child is old enough to control their own images themselves to share their lives on social media, and surely they have a right to that consideration.
After all, once that photo is online, how much control do you have over others sharing the picture, tampering with it, or doing whatever they choose to do with it? Virtually none. I discovered this for myself when I found that a photo of my kids I had used for an article had been used to advertise a company without my knowledge or permission. It certainly was a wake-up call, and thankfully it was taken down. But how many other pictures of my kids that I have shared on Facebook or on my blog are now winging their way across the net that I have zero control over? I shudder to think.
Do we even know what the repercussions of sharing a photo really are? And what of others who innocently share our kid’s photo, like the grandparents? Often those new to social media aren’t aware of privacy settings, meaning they haven’t made the pictures available only to their friends and are unwittingly making them available to the general public.
Still, parents who enforce strict blackout rules are very much in the minority. In a 2011 survey for the Longitudinal Study of American Youth at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, 66% of Generation X parents (i.e. people born in the ’60s and ‘70s) said they post photos of their children online, while more than half said they have shared news about a child’s accomplishment online.
Finally, what of our kids’ safety? My husband attended a recent talk at my children’s school all about online awareness and he was shocked to discover just how much information someone can glean from even a single Instagram picture: a child’s age, location, even their school and birth date. It horrified him to think that a stranger could potentially approach our son and know enough information about him to perhaps convince him he was a family friend.
So maybe it is time I took a leaf out of Jill’s book and stopped uploading any pictures of my children. Let them lead completely offline lives until they are old enough to determine their own social media identities. The question is, am I already too late?
*Names have been changed.More On