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We Can't Control Our Kids' Digital Footprints

Photograph by Getty Images

When my son was born, I called my family and emailed pictures. Embedded in the email was a small request, “Please don’t post pictures on social media until we say so.” It wasn’t because we were trying to control which pictures of his little gooey, red body got out, we merely wanted to personally tell all family members before making a mass announcement.

It didn’t work. My sister posted a picture moments after receiving the email. I called her and texted her to take it down, but it was too late. My sister-in-law had seen (we hadn’t called her yet) and so had a few aunts and uncles.

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Baby pictures have become a new touchpoint in the mommy wars. Get five parents in a room and you will have at least seven different perspectives on when and how and what baby pictures should be shared. But for all of our opinions, exerting control over our child’s pictures may be a fool’s errand.

On Slate, Priya Kumar, writes about how parents have little control over their infant’s digital footprint. Much like those pictures of my son, Kumar notes, that information about children is often disseminated through friends, family members and acquaintances, despite our best wishes. Kumar notes, “But one thing is clear: Control is no longer an effective paradigm to evaluate the relationship between privacy and information. When your baby pictures appear on Instagram, Dropbox, Gmail and Grandma’s phone, who really controls them? The terms of service and privacy policies that govern these tools evolve constantly, and absolute control over information is impossible, even for experts. Not to mention that newborns have no control over their pictures being taken in the first place.”

I couldn’t control how the pictures were shared or who saw them. But should I?

I am fairly liberal about pictures of my children, but even I have limits on the pictures I share and who sees them. Yes, I use pictures of my children on my blog, but they are carefully selected with input from my husband, I’ve cut back on FB pictures and my Instagram is private. If you Google my kid’s names, you will not see their faces or even links back to my writing. I’ve done this because I’ve seen people I know have pictures of their children disseminated online in not very flattering ways. And when my children get older, yes, I do worry about what their peers will find when they Google them. So, I get squeamish when someone else takes a picture and it pops up on social media.

Recently, at a pumpkin patch, my daughter befriended some sixth graders in a corn maze. I let them play until the older girls whipped out their phones to take pictures of my daughter. I kindly asked them to stop and suggested that they just ask next time. They seemed irritated and my 3-year-old told me in no uncertain terms that it was OK, but she is 3, she thinks chewing sticks is OK. On the one hand, I get it. This is how kids are. Digital is their life. They know no better. But on the other hand, this is my kid. I didn’t know these girls. I couldn’t control how the pictures were shared or who saw them. But should I?

Will it really be such a big deal in 10 years? Won’t all kids have dirt about them on the Internet?

I honestly don’t know. Hand wringing about pictures of children online is short-sighted because in 10 years, almost all of our children will have pictures disseminated online. And doomsday picture prophets overstate the longevity of the Internet. I had a blog back when I was 18 that was fairly popular (more popular than my current blog, that’s for sure). I shut that site down when I was 20 because I was getting creepy emails and I didn’t know how to deal with that. There is no trace of that blog online. The Internet only seems to remember if you are important.

Also, most of my children’s peers have parents writing ridiculous blog posts and Facebook statuses and Tweets. So, will it really be such a big deal in 10 years? Won’t all kids have dirt about them on the Internet? Does that necessarily make it OK? And where is the line?

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In the Slate article, Kumar gives example after example of parents trying and failing to exert control over their children’s images online—sometimes to ridiculous degrees, like the mother who won’t post pictures of her child crying because she wants to curate the image of him as a “happy” child or the mother who took down a picture of her child eating a breadstick because she didn’t want it to seem “sexually suggestive.”

One thing is for certain, in 10 years, no matter what we do our children are going to resent us for something. In my case, I just hope it’s not for violating their privacy or leaving a digital legacy that they don’t want to receive.

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