A few weeks ago, Nicole and I became parents for the first time. Everyone’s doing well, and we’re thoroughly delighted as you might imagine.
And that’s as much as you’ll be hearing about it, either here or on social media.
It’s a fascinating and challenging time to grow up, or indeed to bring up children. When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the internet wasn’t really a thing, and even computers were something of a novelty. The idea that, through the web, we could share our lives (and those of others) with anyone else on the planet we desired (and many we didn’t), would have been an extraordinary and bewildering concept to all but the most pioneering computing visionaries.
Today, we can share everything globally and instantly. Where we are, what we’re doing, who we’re doing it with. That’s great, and can be a helpful thing to do. But there’s a flip side – where you are, what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with can be shared by others as well. In the future, we’ll be able to flick back through blogs or social media sites and find out where we or others were five, ten or twenty years ago, and marvel or recoil at the aspirations, activities and fashion choices of the era.
And that extends to children. It’s quite common now for people to share photos, news and videos of their children on blogs or social media, allowing friends or others to see how they’re developing, to instantly share in the laughs, joys and trials, and to effectively watch someone grow up before their eyes. Children born in the last few years have the exciting prospect of their entire lives being mapped out online – first by their parents and later by themselves.
I say “exciting prospect”. It’s also a little bit terrifying, as anyone who’s watched The Truman Show might agree. In the run up to becoming parents, I thought a great deal about the responsibility this would entail specifically in terms of the online world. Would it be right to spread news about our forthcoming offspring publicly or at least widely on social media? Would it be right to share photos of them as a baby, toddler, child or teenager? What if, later in life, they didn’t like the idea?
I confess to being naturally cautious online in many senses. I try not to talk too much about my personal life on here because it’s, well, personal. When I take photos, I always struggle with portraits or candid shots even where strangers add so much to the scene – that’s why I much prefer photographing architecture or scenery. Buildings and mountains can’t get angry about their privacy.
Would I like to discover that my whole life had been put online? Photos of me as a baby in the bath. Rants by my parents about how tired they were or how badly behaved I was. Embarrassing childhood or teenage pictures. To be honest, I’ve no idea what I would think, precisely because it’s hypothetical. I didn’t grow up in an age where this was an issue requiring consideration. I can’t imagine the reactions of today’s children later in life to their lifelong appearance online, and that’s why my caution continues into parenthood.
Of course, there’s something rather wonderful and special about creating a permanent documentation of a person’s life. From baby scan through to adulthood, it’s incredible that the internet allows quick and easy recording of our lives, and frankly if we’re sensible about privacy settings and personal details, there’s no reason for people to be harmed by this.
Moreover, I have no criticism of people’s choice to publish such information – in fact, I’m delighted for them and think it’s great that they’re doing something they’re comfortable with and proud of. Indeed, it’s lovely on my occasional forays into Facebook to read the amusing anecdotes and thoughtful reflections of friends about their children.
It’s not even that I’d be instantly comfortable with just some form of limited distribution, such as a closed circulation on Facebook that just included close friends and family. After all, once you put a picture on Facebook, it becomes their copyright and they can do whatever they like with that photo.
And Facebook listens, learns and reacts – once it sees I’m a parent, it’ll start advertising relevant things to me, second-guessing my interests, and, who knows, maybe asking me for biographical details of my offspring in the way it repeatedly asks me for my workplace and high school whenever I log in. And yes, I’m not often on Facebook so it shouldn’t bother me, but it does.
But you don’t need to share things publicly, or indeed with even a limited distribution, to create a good, evolving “digital history” of a person that you can then hand over to them when they’re in a position to learn about it or take it over.
Last year I read this very thoughtful and articulate post by Ryan McLaughlin, a China-based Canadian guy who I know from when he stayed with me in Inverness through Couchsurfing some years ago. The article was widely shared and republished, so perhaps you’ve read it. In the article Ryan explains why he’s removed his children’s pictures from his online presence. As he says in his conclusion:
It may be inevitable that when they grow tall enough to have cameras and social media accounts they’ll share every mundane and embarrassing detail of their lives, with Facebook and Google mining it all for advertisers. And so be it, such is the world in which we live. As their father I don’t feel it’s my job to insulate my children from the world, but rather it’s to be the best custodian of their future selves I can be. Most of the time that means preparing them with the knowledge and tools they’ll need, in this case it means understanding I don’t need to share my pride in them in digital media format for that pride to exist, and in the process it means protecting their digital identities long enough for them to make a mess of it themselves.
Call it paranoia, call it over-protectiveness, call it an unwillingness to share with friends, and even, if you like, call it illogical in the face of all the other ways that a parent (rightly) shapes their child’s life. But I’d rather call it self-determination for this new little generation, giving them the freedom to shape their life online in the way they see fit.
Obviously I’ve shared the news as best I can with friends by email, text or whatever, but inevitably it won’t have reached everyone I can think of. If that applies to you, and you’re sad not to have seen the news on social media somewhere, then fire me an email and I’ll send you some news and pictures (and an apology for not having done so already!).
This “blanket ban” may not be a sustainable solution, and I’m sure it’s flawed like everything else in life and online. Even as a grown up, and especially as a parent, I’m still learning. But for now, it feels right.