If your kids asked you to stop posting about them on social media, would you? Could you? Certainly when the daughter of US writer Christie Tate asked her mum not to mine her life as material, the request fell on unsympathetic ears.
Writing in the Washington Post this week, Tate suggested “amputating parts of my experience feels as abusive to our relationship as writing about her without any consideration for her feelings and privacy.” Which is hard to read as anything other than: “She doesn’t want me to do this, but I do, so I will.”
Not everyone gets to publish on an international news platform, of course, but the same questions of ownership hover over social media. Facebook rolled out to the world in 2006 (and Instagram in 2010) so there are teenagers whose entire lives have been documented online. Parents have obsessively blogged, vlogged and posted, some for money, some just for the thrill of the ‘likes’.
But where do you draw the line? More than half (51%) of children want their parents to use their phones less as a new year’s resolution compared to a quarter who want them to quit smoking, a survey by Childcare.co.uk found. And the lack of updates from parents of teens saying things like “Jack just can’t stop masturbating!” suggests we do know there’s a point in every child’s life when their story becomes their own and they get agency in how the world sees them.
“My children asked me to stop posting pictures of them on Facebook when they were about nine or ten,” says mum Nicole, whose children are now in their late teens. “One of them was happy with me posting anything, but the other two were more introverted and didn’t want the attention. They’re more relaxed about it now, but I’ve got out of the habit.”
There are loads of decisions a parent makes on behalf of their offspring. Have you ever seen a baby try to fill in a passport application form? They’re terrible at it! But when does one person’s right to expression impinge on another (smaller) person’s right to privacy? Your child is your child, in as much as they’re nobody else’s, but do you own them?
Why wouldn’t I ask my children for permission to post? They are human beings, too"Raluca, blogger
Blogger Raluca documents her parenting adventures but takes care to select images where her children’s faces aren’t visible. “I would expect to be asked for my permission if someone wanted to share photos of me publicly, so why wouldn’t I ask my children for the same permission? They are human beings too, with rights, including the right to privacy,” she says. “Once they grow up, they can decide what image they want to create for themselves.”
There’s a strong urge as a parent to show everything off. You’re proud of your fascinating, beautiful, magical progeny and want to broadcast their every move from the rooftops. And, during the endless sleepless nights, social isolation and crushing self-doubt of early parenthood, validation from the outside world that yes, all this hard work is worth it, look what you made, can be sustaining.
But it also means many children will go online to find a trail of hundreds, even thousands, of photos and updates covering their whole existence. Being young is hard as it is, and the internet is already grotesque and terrifying. Surely we’re not doing anyone any favours by filling it with pictures of them on the potty.
When children are tiny, the thought of them being grown-up feels impossibly distant, but it won’t be long until they’re looking for jobs, hoping to god nobody recognises them from that viral YouTube clip you uploaded where they slipped in dog poo. Or they’re looking you up and find that blogpost you wrote, one anxiety-ridden night, where you wonder if you should even have had children.
Once money becomes part of the picture (with journalism and influencers, say) it becomes even more complicated. As with child modelling, child acting and child beauty pageants, are you exploiting opportunity – or your child? And as an older kid, if you don’t want your parents to share details of your life, yet live in a million-pound mansion because they do, where does that leave you?
If one of them asked me to take it all down I would – it would break my heart, as I think my blog has helped people ... but I’d have to"Grace, blogger
The Washington Post piece riled me, but that possibly makes me a hypocrite. I earn part of my living – not enough to bag a million-pound mansion, mind you – by writing about my experiences as a parent, and regularly post disgusting tweets about my infant daughter’s toilet habits. I keep her face and name out of it, and have few followers, but it’s not out of the question she’ll one day see some of this stuff.
I justify it to myself by seeing it as entertaining and non-specific enough, that it’s not really about her so much as babies in general, a show of solidarity with other parents rather than tattling on her. I’m going for “Ho hum, got baby poop on my watch again, isn’t parenting silly, eh?” rather than “look at my child [REDACTED] doing a poop”. But that’s probably trying to have my cake and eat it.
Grace is a mum blogger who posts extensively about life with her three sons –usually referred to by codenames Eldest, Middle and Baby. “I read Eldest everything I write about him, and he is happy enough,” she says. “If he ever wasn’t, I wouldn’t post it. If one of them turned around in a few years and asked me to take it all down I would – it would break my heart, as I think my blog has helped people and would like it to continue to do so, but I’d have to.”
Parents don’t have to take things public. There are platforms like Tinybeans or Lifecake which only friends and family can access; password-protected Tumblrs and private Instagram accounts; and the ubiquitous family WhatsApp thread. Each has its pros and cons (none will make anyone any money, for a start), but they all keep pictures of Junior off the first page of Google results.
“I want my kids to treat social media like a shopping centre,” says Philly, a digital consultant and father of two. “It can be a fun place to meet your friends, but it’s not your home.” Philly says he heavily filters what he posts about his kids, only posts to a private Instagram account, and never shows their faces.
“People treat the internet like a town square, happily pouring out the details of their lives, their emotional frailties, their sex life, the lot, ignoring that the price of being online is being recorded at all times, and that other people are actively listening, collating and storing it all. Personally I’m keeping my kids out of that.”
Parents could be going places, though – prison. Lawyers in France have warned that children could end up suing their parents for sharing embarrassing photos from when they were younger, which could result in 12 months behind bars. And if there’s one thing it’s particularly hard to do in prison, it’s rake in the ‘likes’.