From first smiles to teenage experiments, a generation of children has had their every move posted by their parents. What can they do about it?
Picture a child entering the world, around the time that a new social networking venture known as thefacebook.comis making its own entrance to the world. It is 2004, and the child is easy to picture. Her parents have photographed their daughters first breath, first smile, first spoonfuls and first steps. When she reaches school age, she is snapped in uniform, probably outside the front door, and one parent, probably her mother, shares the image with friends. The child learns to read, write her name. She wins certificates, excels at sport. When Twitter, Instagram and later Vine arrive, her public identities multiply. She starts secondary school.
In a few months, this child and her classmates will begin to turn 13 and, perhaps, create their own Facebook accounts. When they do, they will come face to face with their digital shadow. They may step into it easily, or try to sever themselves from it, but it wont let go, this pre-existent media identity, because it has logged their lives from the moment they left the womb. Some will recognise their digital shadow, but what of those whose online identity bears little relation to their sense of self, or to the public identity they want to share? For years, parents have fretted about their childrens posting activities, while continuing to post as they wish about their offspring. Is it time they stopped or at least asked for permission first?
Today these questions are on the minds of the children at Kingsford community school in Beckton, east London, where the 13-, 14- and 15-year-old members of the Debate Mate after-school club are filing into a classroom on the first floor, slinging down school bags and glancing at the motion on the whiteboard. This house would ban parents from posting about their children on social media, the debate leader writes.
Its kind of weird your parents are still posting pictures of you on social media, someone says. One boy, Malachi, bows his head and writes a single word on his notepad: reputation. This is really about consent, his friend says. Do I want to be seen by a larger, broader range of people? There is a loud hum of agreement and one girl raises her voice: Parents! We dont want them invading our privacy. Because some of us, the only privacy we get is through social media.
These pupils often discuss social networking sites, their attractions and perils, but this is the first time they have turned their scrutiny on their own parents. And yet parents are the object of an increasingly aggressive interrogation. This spring a mother from Shropshire called out her sons bullying on Facebook, only for the post to go viral; the criticism of her became so intense she removed it and changed her Facebook page and phone number. Next came the 20-year-old mother from Balloch, Scotland, whose photographs of her 11-month-old daughter in tiny high fashion outfits attracted an Instagram following that included Khlo Kardashian until critics claimed the woman was sexualising her baby. She has since locked the account and gone to ground. After her came the Arizona father who nakedly cradled his naked, feverish baby in the shower, an image his wife snapped and shared, before Facebook removed it as offensive.
Excessive sharing about your children has long incited disapproval, but recently the disapproval has begun to acquire a proto-legal tinge. In March, French police warned parents against posting photos of their children on social media; according to social media analyst Eric Delcroix, the children could soon be able to sue them for posting inappropriate pictures, under the countrys privacy laws. The treasurer of the UKs Human Rights Lawyers Association, Leanne Targett-Parker, echoes the idea that it is only a matter of time before children mount legal challenges against oversharing parents. You cant imagine it not being something that starts to develop within the next five to 10 years, she says. I cant see how there cant be attempts at suing people for putting up posts that theyre unhappy with.
Some parents may shrug off the shaming stories and the professionalised sharing of family vloggers such as the Shaytards, the Brataleys, the Ballingers as beyond the range of their own moderate social media activity. But listen to the children in the Kingsford classroom and it becomes clear how many degrees there are of shame. To these teenagers, even small instances of sharing can be divisive. When I ask if anyone has experienced being overshared themselves, hands shoot up, but the answers are a long way from the public shaming that normally grabs headlines. They are exactly the sort of infringements that many parents will commit without a second thought.
I was eating a Subway. Chicken teriyaki. Eating that and my mum just took the picture and posted it on Facebook, one pupil says.
When I was little my parents took a picture of me being potty-trained. Three weeks ago they posted it on Facebook. Me on the toilet. It was really embarrassing, another adds.
I was with my aunt in the park. I was wearing my scarf but I didnt have a pin. It flew off and my hair was all raggedy, sticking up all over the place. My auntie put it on Facebook. I was so embarrassed I was crying. I asked her to take it down but she said, No, it looks cute.
My uncle posted when his daughter had diarrhoea: Pray for her.
One girl, 14, raises her hand. Parents love to post things about you, personal information that you might not like, she says. Which kind of affects your relationship with them. Now, when you want to speak to them about certain things, youre worried they might post it.
Her classmate Erin stands up. Her team supports the motion on the whiteboard that parents should be banned from posting and they have an idea. We want to pass a law that requires open forms of social media to put a consent button on their pages, so a child can report whether their parents have posted about them without consent, she declares. If parents refuse to cooperate, they will be fined the amount of 1,000.
These suggestions may sound excessive and unfeasible; in fact they lie squarely within the recommendations made by a number of adults campaigning in this field. Erins idea of a penalty, for instance, echoes the attempts by a Democratic state representative in Illinois, La Shawn K Ford, to make the shaming of children on social networking sites an offence. Offending parents should face a penalty, he has argued, which, just like Erins, would be a fine paid directly to the child. As for the apparently far-fetched idea of a consent button, this sounds uncannily similar to the delete button proposed by 5Rights, the campaign steered by the peer and film-maker Beeban Kidron to protect and empower children online.
More generally, the debaters irritation chimes with research published in March by a team at the University of Michigan. After interviewing 249 parent-children pairings across 40 US states, the researchers found that children were more than twice as likely as parents to say that adults should not post information online about them without permission. Would the Kingsford children concur? Class E11 rings with shouts of, Yes!
It aint going to happen, their teacher, Miss Alimi, says.
Miss! one of her students cries. Theres a thing called wishful thinking.
Miss Alimi is right: children are unlikely to gain control over their parents posting habits. But there is still scope for a conversation about what constitutes fair sharing, and each family will draw its lines differently. Consider the case of Heather Whitten, the Arizona-based photographer and teaching assistant who took the photograph of her husband and son in the shower that Facebook didnt like. Whitten saw the moment, and the image, as the height of parental care. Their toddler, Fox, had had a temperature for hours. Her husband, Thomas, was trying to cool the childs fever. For two years, Whitten kept the image private, finally posting it in May after Facebook removed other pictures she had shared of her children. She wanted to take a stand, to show that its just innocent pictures that people are twisting and getting offended by.
She was unprepared for the response for the way in which Facebook removed images from her page every time it received sufficient complaints, for the level of disapproval the image provoked, including claims that it was sexual or inappropriate. But Whittens stand had one other unexpected consequence. As the interested and the outraged followed the link to her blog, some began to question the legality, as well as the sense, of showing children naked. I just thought you were free to post what you wanted on the internet, Whitten says now. But then she discovered that in the state of Arizona, you cant show any naked images of childrens pelvic area or butt, and I realised I was technically breaking a law.
She removed the blog took everything down but in the bigger, moral sense, I dont feel Ive done anything wrong. Im not exploiting my children. Im not abusing my children. Im just sharing our lives exactly how they are.
Whittens experience shows just how nebulous and fraught the territory of sharing can be. Sure, her experience would never befall those for whom posting naked images of children is strictly out of bounds. But the case of Whitten is complicated. She and her partner are raising their children to not be ashamed or embarrassed of their bodies. They are living online within the offline boundaries they have set for themselves. People dont show nudity a lot of times because they think it will have a negative impact on their child. Your footprint is for ever on the internet, Whitten says. For me, its absurd. I just hope to combat that a little. Who knows how it will actually turn out, but I hope that my children wont ever look back and see pictures of themselves as children and feel embarrassed by other people seeing them as well. Because there is nothing to be embarrassed about.
Fox, the toddler in the shower, is still too young to veto or cherish the photograph that caused such controversy, but his older sister Lily, nine, loves it, according to her mother. She couldnt really wrap her head around why people would think there was anything wrong with it.
And yet, while Lily was comfortable with the image of her baby brother, she was deeply unhappy with other photographs her mother had uploaded the apparently harmless kind that many parents post. One day at around the age of six, Lily began to scroll through her mothers Instagram. She saw how many pictures there were of her and she didnt like it, Whitten says. For months, whenever Lily saw Whitten with the camera, she hid. That really opened up a conversation about why I take pictures, why I share pictures, who I share pictures with. Now, Whitten says, any time you see Lily, it is with her permission.
Alicia Blum-Ross, a researcher at the London School of Economics, believes we are entering a crucial moment. We are starting to see kids who have grown up, whose parents have shared images, and who are beginning to say: Wait a minute. Im not sure Im comfortable with that. What families need, she thinks, is a coming-of-age conversation. After all, it was Lily Whitten herself, at six, who instigated the dialogue with her mother that earned her the right to veto content. Does Lily have advice for other children? They should say, Please dont take any pictures of me it makes me uncomfortable, she says. And I might change my mind one day, but today I dont want to have to hide from your camera. Soon this digital rulebook chat might become as standard as the one about the birds and the bees. Blum-Ross sees nothing to fear. Both parties, she points out, are united by being the first generation of parents and children to negotiate this path. It can be a really shared experience, she says enthusiastically. The dilemmas are shared dilemmas, the pleasures are shared pleasures. Its a moment of overlap.
Blum-Ross, who has three-year-old twins, says she is not a person who advises total protection. I certainly wouldnt say, Dont share things about your children online. Its important that parents are able to claim their own space about that. Its OK to say, I need this community. Whitten, too, has always seen her sharing in those terms: I feel I share everything as my story this is my perspective on my life as a mother with these children. Im not trying to put words in their mouth, or tell the story from their perspective.
It is one of the oldest questions of storytelling: who does the story belong to? Blum-Ross, Whitten and countless others believe they are telling their own stories, and sharing posts about their children where they fit that perspective. But its complicated. I never had a filter before, says Whitten, sounding forlorn. I love the idea of having connections with other mothers and people. But I cant share the way I used to. After the Facebook furore, she is still fathoming whether to photograph differently or simply stop sharing.