As parents, we do a lot of hand-wringing over how our children will handle social media as they enter their tween and teen years. This sort of stuff wasn’t around when we were their age, we lament. They aren’t mature enough to handle the responsibility, they can’t yet understand the longterm ramifications of what they post, they won’t grasp that once it’s there, it’s there forever.
You know what else wasn’t around when we were their age? Parents who posted every detail online about us as kids. Updates on our potty training progress, blog posts describing our latest tantrum or videos of the way we adorably pronounced “chocolate” as “chock-a-wick.” You can’t google our names and find pictures of dentists cleaning our teeth for the first time or pictures of us holding tiny chalkboards proclaiming that on our first day of kindergarten, we already know we want to be a “ballerina” when we grow up.
We talk to our kids about the importance of protecting their privacy online even as we post pictures of them in the bathtub, in pajamas, in swim suits; pictures that would mortify us. Pictures that likely don’t mortify them when they’re young but could be great fodder for bullying as they get older and their friends become even slightly sophisticated at online searches.
All of these pictures of us as kids—if they even exist—are exactly where they belong: Buried in an old album in the back of a closet.
Writer Christie Tate recently wrote in the Washington Post about the moment when her fourth-grade daughter received her first laptop. The first thing her daughter did? Search her mom’s name and discover all the photos that had been posted and the essays that had been written about her in her earliest years of life. And she was not happy about it.
I read through some of my old pieces, and none of them seemed embarrassing to me, though she might not agree. A few years ago, I wrote about a disappointment in her social life — a girl she counted as her best friend abruptly stopped talking to her. While I wrote about the experience from the perspective of a mother trying to help her daughter through a rough patch without succumbing to anti-girl stereotypes about so-called mean girls, she might not appreciate seeing a painful episode from her past splashed across the Internet.
Even the fact that I’m reading—and now, ugh, writing—about her daughter’s embarrassment feels like an invasion of her privacy.
For parents like Tate—and, frankly, me—who spend at least part of their professional life writing about parenting (and, by extension, their own children), the stakes are especially high. But any parent who posts on social media is inherently a content creator. We are creating new digital content, and even if if we’re doing it with all the proper privacy settings in place, that content can be seen by hundreds of people.
So, what ground rules should we put in place for ourselves?
1. Protect their identity and physical location
For the same reason so many of us avoid posting certain types of personal information to our social profiles, we should also be careful not to connect our kids’ names online with their birthdays, addresses, school names and other private, identifying information.
Post about their fifth birthday (sob) on the day of their party (or on a day close to their real birthday), rather than on their actual birth date. Post first-day-of-school pictures from your front yard, rather than next to the school’s welcome sign. Make sure you can’t see those street signs in the background of the picture of her zooming down the sidewalk on her scooter. Turn off your geo-location service when you’re taking pictures or videos with your phone.
2. Keep their image private
I am better about this now than I used to be. Once my writing began appearing in larger, national publications a few years back and a scary troll (or two) started to take a particular interest in us, I began to realize all the ways in which my son’s image was on the internet—starting with my profile pictures.
It’s great to have your privacy settings locked down as much as possible (and of course, you need to do this), but if we’ve got our kids faces next to ours in our profile pictures, their images are still out there for anyone to see. Is this is a huge deal now? Probably not. Could it be in the future? There are any number of reasons why you (or your kids) might one day wish those were kept private.
And whatever you do post, even on your private accounts, ask yourself this: Would I be upset if a friend or family member posted this without my consent? Because once you post it, once you have created that digital content, you are essentially handing over the rights to it. If you’d be upset by someone else posting it, it’s probably better to keep it offline entirely.
3. Ask their permission
By the time my son was seven, he was becoming sensitive about my posting—or even texting—certain images of him. Sneaking a cute photo of his “concentration face” while working on a word scramble could incite fury in him. (Which surprised me at first until I thought, “Hmmm, do I like when people take candid shots of me? Very much NO.”)
He’s now eight years old and I ask him before I take a photo, I ask him for his permission to text it to grandparents or aunts and uncles, and I ask him whether I can post it to a private social media account. It’s up to him.
He knows I am a writer, and he knows I sometimes write specifically about him. He doesn’t read everything I write, but I tell him what I’m working on and he gives input. He even occasionally suggests topics for me to tackle (his latest suggestion was a piece about race, if that gives you any indication about the kinds of conversations we have).
I don’t yet run every line past him (he wouldn’t have the patience for that), but I also don’t want him to wake up one day feeling blindsided about what I’ve shared.
4. When in doubt, don’t post
Over the years, I personally have dialed way back on the depth with which I write about my son. A line in the sand started to appear for me when he was around age five, when he began spending the bulk of his waking hours away from me, rather than with me. He was making his own friends and starting his own activities and having his own life outside of the two of us hanging out all day long.
My experiences with him as a baby had morphed into our experiences when he was a toddler and preschooler and were now becoming his experiences. Now, whenever I hesitate over the “publish” button, I put myself in his shoes. Would I care if my mom had tweeted this joke I made up when I was his age? Would I think this picture with the funny expression that totally shows his personality were cute if I were the one making the face?
Could my words or the images I post embarrass him or hurt his feelings or make him feel in any way like he’s not the most important thing in the world to me when he’s old enough to look back? If I’m not sure, I either delete it or I move it to a private folder where it lives until I decide to one day share it with him or trash it completely.
If nothing else, choosing not to post—or not to “sharent,” as our parental over-sharing is becoming known—can set a good example for the restraint we hope they will show on social media.
We are the first generation of parents to worry about what our kids share online; and they are the first generation of kids to have to live with what we share about them.