Who’s in control?

Ten years ago, I swore I would never send a text message. Five years ago, I said I would not become a Twitter user. Three years ago, I could not have imagined writing blogs. From the first time I heard about Facebook, I said I would not use it.

Well, now I text all the time. Many times a day. It is my main way of communicating with my kids. If I want to be sure to get a colleague’s attention, I send a text – even if it is just to say I have sent an email that I need them to read.

I use Twitter, selectively, but increasingly frequently and, I have to admit, I like it a lot as a means to get information circulating quickly. There is a lot of junk on Twitter, and you will never find me tweeting pictures of my breakfast or my most recent shoe purchase, but important news and information can be found there, too.

If you are reading this, then you know that I write blogs – two a week for the past 2½ years.

In fact, the only absolute “never” I have issued about social media that I have kept is my decision not to use Facebook. That one I plan to maintain, mostly because there are just not enough hours in the day to look at one more thing online, but also because there is a limit (which has, admittedly, shifted considerably over the years) to how much of my privacy I am willing to give up.

What about kids?

Sonia Bokhari’s parents had a rule that their kids could not use social media until they were 13. When she reached that magic age and joined Twitter and Facebook, she took a look at her mother’s online profile. As she wrote:

“That’s when I realized that while this might have been the first time I was allowed on social media, it was far from the first time my photos and stories had appeared online. When I saw the pictures that she had been posting on Facebook for years, I felt utterly embarrassed, and deeply betrayed. There, for anyone to see on her public Facebook account, were all of the embarrassing moments from my childhood. . . . It seemed that my entire life was documented on her Facebook account, and for 13 years, I had no idea.”

Sonia’s essay got me reflecting on how the adults in our family handle social media and kids.

How we communicate

My partner’s and my adult children all engage very differently with social media. No doubt, there are pictures of my grandchildren on our kids’ Facebook pages; maybe even on Twitter. However, my daughter and my partner’s son have been pretty protective of their children’s privacy.

Kate posted about her kids, minus photos, when they were very young and she was active in parenting chat rooms. Now, she rarely uses social media, so the issue doesn’t really come up.

My step-son, who is a photography nut, posted pictures of his sons when they were babies in a password-protected site so we, but not the rest of the world, could see them anytime we wanted to. Those grandsons are still little — too young to consent in any meaningful way to any use of their images or stories.

When I asked him how he would feel if I wrote something that identified him, my 14-year-old grandson, Leo, gave a shrug of his shoulders and said that probably no one he knew would read anything I put on social media anyway. I imagine he is right about that, but it is also the case that younger people have a more relaxed approach to privacy than do people of my age.

Cutting back

Sonia writes about limiting her digital footprint generally, something my daughter has done over the past few years. She has cut back her connection with social media; in particular, Facebook. She had a couple of reasons for doing so, both connected to her kids to some extent.

First, she wants to spend less time looking at screens “for me, myself, but also for me, as a role model for my kids, with whom I’m always arguing about screen time.”

Equally, she has come to feel that what people post on social media is such a false picture of their real lives that it can be damaging to those who read and believe it, including kids:

“The worlds and lives people were presenting on Facebook were not real. I was as guilty of this as the next person: of course I’m going to share some great news or amazing accomplishment with my “friends,” but I was not at all likely to share when I was having a hard time. In a newsfeed filled with perfect kids, parties, meals, and lives, it becomes pretty hard not to feel (at least sometimes) like one’s own life leaves a bit to be desired. The worlds people present on social media are (for the most part) curated to highlight the good times, and why not? It’s way easier to share the good times. What I wanted it to be was a balance of things but it wasn’t, and isn’t. And that isn’t about to change. So I realized there was a really simple solution for me: Just. Don’t. Look. At. It. 

It’s so liberating not to be in it anymore. I’m not a purist. I treat it like candy – a fun and unnecessary pleasure to be enjoyed in moderation.” 

Privacy vs corporatization

All of us can remember embarrassing photos from when we were kids; photos we were terrified might see the light of day and that siblings and parents joked about showing to our future partners. The urge to capture images of mundane (and sometimes embarrassing) moments is not new, but the ability to disseminate those images is:

“Social media may be fairly new, but the act of recording everyday life is age-old. . . . Family photo albums don’t transmit digital data and become visible only when you decide to show them to someone, whereas those Instagram pictures sit on servers owned by Facebook and are visible to anyone who scrolls through your profile. . . . places where parents spend time online are owned by companies who want access to every corner of our lives.”

When I post something personal, I know the risks and make my decisions accordingly; when I post something about someone else – say, a child – without asking first, I deny them the opportunity to say no. Of course, even when a child okays a social media posting, they may not be old enough to understand the long-term implications. Perhaps it behooves us, the adults, not to present the possibility until they are old enough for a comprehensive conversation about privacy.

I don’t want something I write about my grandsons to embarrass them, but I also don’t want details about what they look like and what they like to do to be accessible to companies that will use that information for their own purposes; purposes that may not be in my grandsons’ best interests.

As Sonia writes:

“Teens get a lot of warnings that we aren’t mature enough to understand that everything we post online is permanent, but parents should also reflect about their use of social media and how it could potentially impact their children’s lives as we become young adults.”

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