By Tracey Dowdy
As a Gen Xer, my daughters’ childhoods are captured in framed photos, memories, and photo boxes in the closet off my home office. I didn’t start using Facebook until they were both tweens, and perhaps that’s why I understood the importance of not posting photos or posts about them without permission. Tweens are at an age when even having parents is mortifying, and though I sometimes overstepped, I have their consent for what’s in those old Facebook albums and posts.
Fast forward to today, where the oldest members of the millennial cohort are – gasp – turning 40. Lifestyle blogging was in its heyday during the late nineties and early 2000s, and for a while, it seemed like everyone had a blog, especially moms. It wasn’t uncommon to hear graphic stories of diaper blowouts, potty training mishaps, mispronounced words, and other content that exposed the most intimate details of their child’s milestones and behavior.
The issue is that many of those children are now old enough to Google themselves, and those blogs and Facebook posts are impacting them in ways parents didn’t, and arguably couldn’t have anticipated. The children who were the subjects of those posts are in some cases mortified by the content, while the majority simply resents having had no say over their online presence. There’s even a portmanteau for the phenomenon – sharenting.
Perhaps there’s no better example of the conflict between the two perspectives than that of Christie Tate and her daughter. Back in January, Tate, who has been blogging about her family for over a decade, wrote an essay for the Washington Post titled, “My daughter asked me to stop writing about motherhood. Here’s why I can’t.” Though she’s been writing about her children since they were in diapers, it’s only recently that her nine-year-old daughter became aware of what her mom has been writing, and asked her to stop. Tate refused, stating,
They’ve agreed to a compromise where Tate will use a pseudonym rather than her daughter’s real name, and Tate has “agreed to describe to her what I’m writing about, in advance of publication, and to keep the facts that involve her to a minimum.” Her daughter also has the right to veto any pictures of herself she doesn’t want to be posted.
Tate faced considerable backlash, with many calling her selfish and coldhearted. Many on social media sites like Reddit have roasted her, though she did receive some support.
Fourteen-year-old Sonia Bokhari wrote an honest, insightful piece for Fast Company about what it was like to finally be allowed her own social media accounts – long past the age many of her friends had become active – only to discover that her mother and older sister had been documentary her life for years. “I had just turned 13, and I thought I was just beginning my public online life, when in fact there were hundreds of pictures and stories of me that, would live on the internet forever, whether I wanted it to be or not, and I didn’t have control over it. I was furious; I felt betrayed and lied to.”
Bokhari’s mother and sister meant no harm; they posted photos and things she had said that they thought were cute and funny. She explained her feelings to her mother and sister, and they’ve agreed that going forward, they’ll not post anything about her without her consent.
It wasn’t just the embarrassment of having the letter she wrote to the tooth fairy when she was five or awkward family photos. Her digital footprint that concerned Bokhari as well. “Every October my school gave a series of presentations about our digital footprints and online safety. The presenters from an organization called OK2SAY, which educates and helps teenagers about being safe online, emphasized that we shouldn’t ever post anything negative about anyone or post unapproved inappropriate pictures, because it could very deeply affect our school lives and our future job opportunities.” Bokhari concluded that “While I hadn’t posted anything negative on my accounts, these conversations, along with what I had discovered posted about me online, motivated me to think more seriously about how my behavior online now could affect my future.”
Her response to what she learned? Bokhari eventually chose to get off social media altogether.
“I think in general my generation has to be more mature and more responsible than our parents, or even teens and young adults in high school and college… being anonymous is no longer an option. For many of us, the decisions about our online presence are made before we can even speak. I’m glad that I discovered early on what posting online really means. And even though I was mortified at what I found that my mom and sister had posted about me online, it opened up a conversation with them, one that I think all parents need to have with their kids. And probably most importantly, it made me more aware of how I want to use social media now and in the future.”
For many of us, trying to clean up our digital footprint or that of our children feels a lot like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube or trying to make toast be bread again. Still, it’s important to try. You’re not only curating your own reputation; you’re shaping your child’s before they’ve ever had a chance to weigh in.
Consider your audience and your motivation, then evaluate whether or not what your sharing is worth the potential ramifications. The internet is the wild wild west – maybe you need to start acting as the sheriff of your own town.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.