I grew up in the dim and distant 1980s. Back then, it would have been absolutely unthinkable for a parent to print out hundreds of copies of every photo they took of their kids and send them out to every Tom, Dick or Harry they had a vague connection to.
For a start, it would have cost a fortune due to photo processing techniques but the cost aspect aside, it simply wouldn’t have crossed anyone’s minds.
Fast forward thirty years and we children of the analogue camera age are now parents ourselves. Parents with smartphones and digital cameras. Parents with Facebook accounts and Instagram. And a whole world of opportunities to show off how adorable/beautiful/funny/disgusting our progeny are has opened up for us.
So we blog. And we post to our Facebook walls. We tag this one and that one. Every intimate detail of our lives is shared as if anyone on the other end of the tube actually gives a shit. But maybe cousin Betty in Australia would like to see bambino with baby spag bol all over his face. Stick it up on Facebook. Or our old friend Bobby from college would laugh at the little one in an oversized football shirt. Snap. Up on Facebook it goes.
Or maybe it’s all just getting a bit much with the nappies and the feeding and keeping the house together and adult relationships and families sticking their oar in and you just need a place to vent and get it off your chest. So you pick up your phone, get a good rant out with plenty of details (names not changed, you were keeping it real for all of your “friends” reading it) and hit Post. The dopamine hit of the likes and the “U OK chic?” works wonders. At least for a while.
When it comes to our personal data and online privacy, our generation has to realise that we gave it all away for nothing. All of our private thoughts and personal moments. All surrendered freely without a whisper, never mind a fight. But at least we had a choice. We’re all adults. If we want to give it all away that’s perfectly within our range of control. But what about those caught up in the collateral damage of the social media sharing society we’ve created? What about those who don’t have a choice?
What I’m basically saying is:
I don’t think I was the only one who gave an involuntary shudder when reading parenting blogger Christie Tate’s recent account of her young daughter’s realisation that her whole life was plastered all over the internet. Despite her daughter’s obvious objections, Christie has refused to water down how much of their lives she shares beyond giving her a veto over which photos will accompany the articles. I foresee further problems ahead there. And the Tate’s won’t be the only family going through that particular storm.
My wife and I are already several years down the path of tightening up our controls over the online privacy of our two daughters. When they were young we were very much like the scenario I painted above. Sharing our own photos and anecdotes on Facebook. Giving family members free rein to take their own photos of the kids and share them to their own accounts. But we hit a stage where we no longer felt comfortable doing so.
This may sound strange coming from someone currently writing an article about issues in his private life but I don’t go around spilling my guts about every little episode that happens in my life. I decided some years ago to delete my Facebook account and remove as much of the old content I had built up from view. My Twitter feed is more made up of retweeted jokes and memes than anything else apart from the occasional football related exhortation.
Why then should we feel it’s ok to cross that boundary with respect to our children? Ours are still very young but the years go by at an astounding pace and it won’t be too long before they are in the same position of getting their own laptop like Christie Tate’s daughter. How mortifying must it be to see every aspect of your own life (complete with visual imagery) staring back at you when you do the inevitable ego search for your own name on Google? Being a child and teenager is hard enough without all of your peers having access to intimate details of every time you peed or pooped yourself when you were three.
Beyond the embarrassment factor, we have to take into account the very real subject of online safety and child protection. Our generation (and that of our silver surfer parents and grandparents) have a real nerve when it comes to lecturing kids about maintaining their own safety while online. We’re the mugs who plaster photos of them all over the place along with school and playdate check-ins. We’re the clowns who check our location into Facebook for the whole world to see when we are at the airport heading away on holidays. And we think we can lecture kids on playing safe anywhere? Please!
It might take laws such as COPPA in the United States and GDPR-K in Europe to finally put the last nail in the coffin of our wilful plundering of our children’s online privacy. But there are already signs from their own online activities that the new wave of tech savvy and online literate kids are already way ahead of us in protecting themselves. If they are used to protecting their online lives, data and privacy from a young age, why would they change that when they get older? And where does that leave the financial plans of the big tech companies that have made billions from harvesting the personal data of my own generation?
I don’t think it’s too much to ask of us and other family members to respect the futures of our children. Getting some attention and Likes on Facebook for your adorable grandchildren might seem perfectly innocuous. But when Facebook’s privacy policies are so opaque that we don’t know who is ultimately able to see and track those pictures, why would we ever take the chance?
They shouldn’t have their drunken 18 year old summer holiday snaps get brought out at a job interview just because they foolishly allowed their friends to post them on social media years before. And the best we can do is make sure that they get time to learn the dangers and pitfalls of operating online for themselves. Maybe we can even learn something about that ourselves. Better late than never.