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When I recently found myself trying to explain to some friends of mine why I don’t put pictures of my five year old son on social media their reactions ranged from baffled – why not share the happiness and wonder that your little darling brings? – to mocking (why am I letting myself be made paranoid?) to borderline furious at what they perceived as my holier than thou attitude.
Certainly, this parsimonious approach to posting – or ‘sharenting’ as it is now dubbed – puts me very much in a minority. A new study says that by the time the average child is five, its parents have posted 1,500 images of him or her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. This feels like a woeful underestimate. Most people I know could reconstruct their child’s gestation – the pictures begin with the 12, sometimes eight week scan – and early years in real time from the stuff they post online. Some hint of how these children will feel about all of this in the future comes from Austria this week, where an 18-year old unnamed woman is suing her parents to force them to remove childhood pictures of her her from Facebook. She told one newspaper, ‘They knew no shame and no limits…they didn’t care if I was sitting on the toilet or lying naked in the cot, every moment was photographed and made public.’
Yet, posting up photos of your child on social media has become so commonplace that people rarely question it – witness last week’s bombardment of back to school photos , adorned with hash tags such as #proud and #stopgrowingupplease. But I never, or at least very rarely, post pictures of my son. I did crack a few weeks ago and tweeted one of him (fully-clothed, face not visible) eating breakfast with a pair of pants on his head, and captioned it “Monday”.
As a depersonalised one-off, it’s just about forgiveable. But rare, I insist, is the five year old who has created 1,500 moments worth bringing to a public wider than devoted grandparents and – maybe – a loving aunt. I can spend hours on the phone to my mother detailing his every utterance, gesture and lavatory visit and the only result will be more questions, about how his hair was looking and whether his fingernails seem to be growing at a healthy rate.
Putting the equivalent of that online would be cruel and unusual punishment for friends (over posting pictures of babies or children often figures in lists of the top annoying things people do on-line) and that’s without thinking of all those casual bystanders – 50 per cent of our social media friends, according to one study are colleagues, friends-of-friends and ‘people we just like the look of’ . Being a parent is a constant fight not to lose all ability to discriminate – most crucially, between the genuinely funny anecdote/picture and simply Something the Child Said/Did – and bore all those around you senseless.
And then there’s the security issue. Why bring anything about your most precious and vulnerable possession to public attention? Am I paranoid? I would say that I am rightly cautious and the 85% of people who, according to Nominet, haven’t revised their online privacy settings in the last year or don’t know how to, ought to be a damn sight more so.
We know there are terrible people out there dead set on doing terrible things. We know we once lived quite happily without uploading pictures full of identifying features (school uniforms, street names in backgrounds, captions full of nicknames for children and the real names of pets and soft toys that could provide anyone with a convincing-sounding connection to your child in the park) into public domains. The pleasures of doing the latter don’t remotely outweigh the potential injury they could elicit from the former.
Even if you don’t see a threat hiding round every cyber (and actual) corner, what about the risk that your children will feel as the claimant in the Austrian case evidently does about their lives having been put on display without them knowing, since the beginning? Maybe the notion of privacy by then will be so far eroded that it won’t bother them.
But I doubt adolescents change that much between generations. I suspect the Austrian teen will have much company in years to come as new generations of always-hypersensitive teenagers trying to carve out a bit of quiet, contemplative, private space to work out his or her own identity start to find all the bare-bummed snaps that once would have been confined to a family album strewn across the internet forever.