Putting our children on the internet

A majority of people I know have children. Some have had children very recently, others have older kids. Most of them share photos of said children on social media on a regular basis, because they want to share with their friends the joy that having children brings them. It’s nice to see pictures of children having fun, achieving things, clowning around. And it’s awesome to see parents showing pride and joy in that. I like seeing how my friends’ kids are doing and watching them grow at a distance if I don’t get to see them often in person. Children being children is a wonderful thing that can bring a real spark into our lives. So far so good.

Some people, however, do this in a way that I feel oversteps an important line. Not all their photos are of their children looking happy or engaging in fun activities. Sometimes, we see pictures of sullen-looking children in the act of being told off for some misdeed (how do you even take a photo of someone in the middle of telling them off?); I even once saw one of a child who’d had a bathroom-related “accident,” shared in an “oh, you!” kind of spirit. Some parents post several of these per day. Some of them go viral. I have seen maybe 5 different parents sharing this sort of picture in the last couple of weeks. Other times, it’s the sheer quantity of photos shared that makes it feel a tiny bit skeevy. It’s as if we’re given a window through which to watch the every move of a child who isn’t ours. Without them knowing they’re being watched. Bit creepy, no? I mean, what’s the big difference between someone you hardly know watching your kid through their bedroom window and someone you hardly know seeing hundreds of pictures of your kid in their bedroom? Wouldn’t that Peeping Tom bother you just a tad?

Let’s face it, parents will take embarrassing pictures of their children. It’s a fact of life. But would you be happy if someone shared tens or even hundreds of pictures of you online without your knowledge, or shared pictures of you as part of a punishment or in an embarrassing situation, with a bunch of strangers, friends and family on the internet? I mean, how many of your Facebook friends do your kids know personally? How many do you know personally? How many would you be comfortable joking with about wetting yourself? Would you post a photo on Facebook of yourself in the aftermath of a Bathroom Accident?

You may well be thinking, “but that’s silly: all children have Bathroom Accidents. It’s a kid thing and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s different for adults.”

Yeah. So is deciding whether you want your photo on the internet. The difference is that you as an adult get a say in the matter. Children are just as capable as adults of feeling shame and embarrassment and I think a lot of adults forget that sometimes.

I was a really shy and easily embarrassed kid. Even at the age of five or six, I was too embarrassed to answer when an adult who was responsible for me (including parents) asked questions in a medical context about my body or my bathroom habits. I would have wanted to die of embarrassment if I’d wet myself and someone had taken a picture, let alone shared it with others, and I would never have forgotten it. That may have something to do with the fact that many children are brought up to be ashamed of their bodies (something I’d like to avoid with my own children), but it also shows that you can’t assume someone will be OK with something potentially embarrassing just because they are a child. Incidentally, I also HATED having my picture taken, but was often forced to have it done anyway. It’s hard to avoid these days, but at least adults generally get to have a say in who puts what pictures of them on the internet, to an extent at least. And if that’s violated, then we get to kick up an almighty fuss, and quite right too.
Some of my Facebook friends don’t even have their privacy settings restricted on these kiddie photos – which in some cases means that they can potentially be seen and shared by pretty much anyone.

I know for sure that if Internet photo sharing had been a thing when I was a child, I would have grown up very uncomfortable with the knowledge that there were hundreds of photos of me that had been put online and shared without my permission. Babies and little children aren’t able to consent to that, because they can’t possibly understand the scope of it. And I bet they are rarely asked!

The point that I’m making here is not along the lines of ZOMG WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN WHAT IF A PERVERT SEES THEM!!!!11111!! No. It’s about consent. What I’m saying is that just because someone happens to be your child does not give you the right to publicly humiliate them in front of an audience consisting of people they know very well right down to people they have never even heard of.

Obviously, there are times when parents have both a right and an obligation to consent to things on behalf of their children. An obvious example is medical procedures that we can’t expect young children to understand the implications of having or not having. And we have to make countless decisions on our children’s behalf, from what clothes they wear or how their hair is cut before they’re able to articulate their choices, to where they go to school. I’m not saying we should treat our children like adults, because often they aren’t capable of making certain informed decisions for themselves. But I think it’s a good idea to ask ourselves firstly, do I have to make this decision about my child without any input from them? And secondly, is this something I would be comfortable with if someone did it to me without my consent or knowledge? Is it really, honestly in the child’s best interests?

I was reading a page on this website about common behaviours and beliefs exhibited by toxic, controlling and abusive parents and some things resonated particularly strongly with me. One was the idea some of these people have that being someone’s parent automatically gives them permanent authority over that person, even after they have become an adult. That they don’t need to discuss personal boundaries and comfort zones with their children or seek their opinions when making decisions for them. For these people, “I am your mother/father” is permission enough. Even when their children are adults living autonomous lives, they still think it’s OK to try and control them with “I am your [parent] so you have to do what I say.” And another was a series of behaviours and attitudes indicating that these parents apparently saw their children as possessions, or extensions of themselves, rather than discrete human beings with their own minds and feelings. Some of it felt rather familiar.

Let me make it very clear that I do not, in any way, think that sharing pictures of your children on Facebook is abusive or that tweeting about their misdemeanours makes you a toxic and controlling parent. I am merely concerned that we are gradually and subtly moving towards a culture without boundaries when it comes to what we share of our children’s lives, and I wanted to think about the potential impact that may have on them further down the line. And I am not blaming parents for this, because it is so insidious. I’m blaming our cultural shift in the way we communicate about our lives. Social media have gradually made us pay less and less attention to our own personal boundaries, sometimes to the point where we share REALLY personal stuff that we wouldn’t normally. We’ve all seen a Facebook post that makes us think “ugh, too much information!” So by extension, we think less and less of doing the same with our children’s personal stuff, the key difference being that it is still us making the decision of how much we share rather than the person we are talking about or sharing pictures of. Will getting into habits like this make us less respectful or mindful of our children’s autonomy, consent and boundaries further down the line?

Sometimes I wonder for whom the embarrassing or shameful picture I see is being shared: for the child’s benefit or the parent’s? Usually the parent’s, right? It can be cathartic to share your frustrations, certainly. Or you can get kudos for making people laugh. But is it OK to use photos of someone else publicly for your benefit and entertainment or to publicly humiliate them into not doing whatever it was again? Or is that symptomatic of the risk of becoming the sort of parent who thinks they own their children or doesn’t need to respect their boundaries?

I would never dream of telling people how to bring up their children or judging how they do it. If you’re a parent and you’re someone I know, then I guarantee that I don’t think you are a bad parent because I don’t think that about anyone I know. But I think we all need to be mindful of the direction we are moving in.

What are we saying about our children if we constantly share photos of them, bragging about how cute they are? If we don’t ever do that in the context of their own views and personalities are we not basically treating or appearing to treat them as decorations or accessories? If I can share this embarrassing picture of my kid, can I say that’s fine because he’s my kid and I am OK with it myself so by extension he has to be as well? I mean, isn’t that kind of dehumanising? Isn’t it a bit of a bad habit to get into? Might it eventually make us sometimes forget that our children ARE human beings separate from ourselves?

Of course I wouldn’t look at someone’s Facebook feed and assume that because there are sooooooo many pictures of their kids there, they will end up violating all said children’s boundaries for the rest of their lives. Absolutely not. It seems to be the norm at the moment. I just think we ought to consider what we’re saying to ourselves, our peers and our children when we make their private lives so public without giving them any choice in the matter.
In future, when I’m tempted to share pictures of and information about my child(ren) in a public place, I’d like to think that I will first stop and consider whether I would share the same information if it were my partner or my friend rather than my child and they found out about it. Would they be upset or angry that I’d shared 300 photos of them within a month or that I’d told everyone about the embarrassing thing they’d done? If not, no problem. Yes, children are different from adults, but let’s remember that they will one day become adults and how we treat them as children will have a direct effect on how they treat themselves and others as adults.

I think we also misjudge children’s comfort zones quite badly too. Aside from blithely sharing their personal information and photos with the world, how often do we carry on tickling a child who is shouting stop, or make them hug and kiss a relative they don’t like? My concern is that by doing this (because we can, because we have so much power over the child), we are basically teaching them that they don’t have a say when it comes to their personal boundaries because adults get to dictate them. They don’t have a say in whether they’re comfortable with something happening to them if it’s a relative or close family friend doing it to them.

Oh, and by the way: 80% of child abuse is perpetrated by a relative or close family friend. You see where I’m going with that, right?

Let’s consider the implications of bringing our children up with constant messages that it’s OK for those people not to consider their wishes when it comes to personal information, photos, tickling and kisses. We tell them to be wary of strangers who might do things they don’t want them to do, while simultaneously doing other things to them that we haven’t checked they are comfortable with. By that, of course, I mean things we don’t HAVE to do to them. Obviously you are not going to ask your kid’s permission (as such) before you give them a bath, although it probably won’t hurt to check what they are happy with you doing at each stage of the bath and whether they’d prefer you to do it differently, depending on the child. But that’s beside the point and I’m not here to tell people how to bathe their children. Obviously sharing a few holiday snaps online is not going to prime your child to be a victim of abuse, especially if they don’t know about it. But there is nothing wrong with considering where your boundaries are and how your child might feel about what you have shared about them and with whom, once they’re old enough to understand how the internet works.

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2 thoughts on “Putting our children on the internet

  1. It’s amazing with the invention of smart phones and digital cameras just how many photos were able to take. Remember when it was Kodak and you had only one film left? You really needed to make that last photo count and a child peeing really wasn’t one of them.

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    1. Exactly. Considering how much I hated having my picture taken (and still do) I absolutely shudder to think how horrible it would have been for an introvert like me growing up in an age where one’s parents take them daily instead of just holidays and parties and stuff.

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