Blog School: Here’s Looking At You(r) Kid
If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is ever really safe to Google. But more than that, it has shown us time and again that just because we think things are private, that doesn’t make it so.
At the same time, the rise and rise of social networking and personal blogging has also seen an influx of content from the scariest people on the internet: parents. The internet offers so many ways to share content: photos on Facebook; funny anecdotes on Twitter; page after page of life story on blogs; weird three-second video grabs on Vine. Parents are all over them.
It’s a wide-reaching spectrum. At one end are the parents who not only shy away from posting photos of their kids, but also give them complex pseudonyms and secret other lives. At the other end are parents who have no hesitation in sharing anything and everything, including but not limited to: potty training highlights, full-frontal nudity and bouts of actual crying (some with accompanying #hashtags.)
I share my kids online almost every day. My daughters have so much of their lives online they are almost certainly cyborgs. I give them the option to say no. I go to them with my ideas for exploitation and ask if they mind. Mostly they just roll their eyes at me. “Mum, is this going on your blog?” And I tell them that it is, because my friends on the internet love to see what’s going on with them, and also because they are the most beautiful children in the world.
Sometimes they ask me not to. They tell me they look silly in a photo, or they’re embarrassed by a story, so I don’t share them. I give them the choice, but I also exercise a level of caution of which they’re not capable. On the spectrum, I am somewhere in the middle. I have a daughter with social issues and I look to other parents for camaraderie, hopefully without bringing shame on my family. It’s a trial and error process.
The amount that one reveals online is obviously a matter of personal preference and paranoia. It is part of protecting our kids; there are the obvious, terrifying risks of child pornography, online grooming and real-life stalking. Combating these is reasonably straightforward: don’t post photos of your kids in front of their schools, don’t “check in” when you take them to Saturday morning sport, don’t upload photos of them in the bath. Not to diminish the prevalence of this kind of activity, but it belies a much greater problem.
We have a responsibility to protect our children’s right to privacy and their mental health, and those are far murkier waters.
When does it stop being about we the parents, and start being about they the children?
Reasons for sharing extensive public photos and anecdotes vary. “To share them with family and friends” is the most common reason, but the number of parents with personal blogs and public social media feeds is growing at a rate of knots. Why the compulsion—and in some cases, ambition—to increase the reach of our children?
Some of it is pride, no doubt. My kid is the most beautiful. My kid is the most hilarious. My kid is a PR darling. The parental delusion: everyone cares about what my kid is doing. Let’s not pretend that we don’t love a few “Your kids rock!” comments. And by “love”, I mean “live for”. And by “we” I mean “I”. But I digress.
Kim Abbate is a blogger and mother, and she has taken up residency toward the “share everything” end of the spectrum. She has an interesting perspective on the nature of the online space. “Online vs offline is not something I consciously think about. It all just ‘is’. It’s fluid.” The need to differentiate between online and offline is diminishing. Online is offline. It’s harder to see where ‘offline’ ends and ‘online’ begins, and that blurry line represents a real risk to those who share on the internet.
Children in Australian primary schools have access to the internet in their classrooms. And yes, some sites are blocked, but imagine my surprise when my 7-year-old daughter came home one day and said, “Mum, I Googled your name at school and found all these photos of us!” I’m sure I don’t need to spell it out, but just in case … if they can find it, so can their peers, their teachers, their enemies. Not just photos, but pet names, fears, hopes, problems and worries. There are unfortunate similarities between what we like to share and what is likely to cause trouble for our kids. As parents, we bond online over shared issues with child rearing. In airing our parenting frustrations or anecdotes, are we just creating fodder for Google savvy schoolyard bullies?
Let’s get serious for a minute.
Just because you can share it, doesn’t mean you should.
In a recent New York Times article, Jillian Keenan breathed a sigh of relief that her mother didn’t have a platform on which to share an event from her adolescence. Keenan’s frustration came in the wake of Liza Long’s blog entry, I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother. Liza Long is not Adam Lanza’s mother. Liza Long is a woman who chose to share intimate details of her son’s mental health with the internet. Not with her friends on Facebook, but with the Huffington Post. (Google that if you want to.)
To summarise: Long’s son is thirteen years old. He has a life away from his mother. He is in high school with other students who know how to use the internet. His name has been changed, but his mother’s hasn’t been; how hard could it be to figure out his identity? His younger siblings are also mentioned in this piece. How do they feel about having this relationship with their brother made public? Has anyone asked them?
As the children of plugged-in parents get older, their need for privacy increases, and our job is to be aware of how likely it is that they—or someone else—will find this content. We think it’s hilarious when they come home from the dentist off their faces. Sometimes we even make a buck out of it. But will our kids be laughing when their friends start asking them why they were crying at Monsters Inc. on the weekend? Will they thank us for sharing the minute details of the time they threatened us with a razor blade?
In ten years, will their potential employers be so forgiving?
Our children are not playthings (for the most part). The argument about whether this type of content is exploitative is not one that we should be having with other parents; we should be having it with our children. They should be making the decisions about what goes online, just as we should have control over our own online profiles.
This is not our content; it is theirs.
Do you post images of your child online? What guidelines do you have in place to protect your child’s privacy? Do you want to rethink your approach to publishing your kids? Are you worried about how sharing personal photos and details about our kids might impact on them later?