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Violating Children’s Dignity In The Age Of Social Media


Every day, my friend Laura brightens up my Facebook news feed. A gifted writer and mother of three precocious children, she relays their conversations, poignant moments, and hilarious activities with style and wit. I love her children: the deep thoughtfulness of her son, her daughter’s sass, and the smushy cheeks on her baby. I have never met them.

Another friend likes to talk about her “redneck kids” — her terminology. After hearing about her boys’ desire to wake up in the wee hours to go duck hunting and her children’s plan to shoot the Elf on the Shelf with a BB gun, I’m inclined to agree.

I’m from the East Coast but recently transplanted to flyover country. I’ve met good folk here but my heart still is with my loved ones in Virginia and my lifelong friends in DC. Many of them are only now just having children, and I may never get to hold their newborns or attend first birthday parties or cry with my friends on their babies’ first day of school. While in the past I would have depended on Christmas newsletters and the occasional phone call to feel even a small part of their families’ lives, I now benefit from daily updates on social media. I treasure the little glimpses I get into their daily routine.

But two friends recently told me something disturbing that makes me rethink our approach to social media updates. One friend confided that her 6-year-old daughter asked her mother to stop talking about her on Twitter. Another friend’s 7-year-old asked to be consulted before parents posted personal information on Facebook.

All the ways we miss the point

Two different child-free friends posted a Slate article on their walls last month headlined “Why We Post Nothing About Our Daughter Online.” My first reaction was that it was funny that childless folk were weighing in on a debate reserved for parents. My second was that I, too, used to have lofty ideals about how little I planned to post about my children on the internet. My third, however, was that this article — and many other warnings about internet privacy — miss a very key point.

Much of the debate over a child’s privacy on Facebook and other social networking sites focus on the tangible: the future employer reading about toddler exploits, the prom date laughing at the picture in the tub, concern over biometrics and data mining, hyperventilation over child predators. Warnings on posting cell-phone pictures or FourSquare updates include the possibility of geotagging one’s locations and fears over burglary or kidnapping or worse.

The emphasis on protecting children from predators makes my blood boil from the ignorance. Thirty percent of sex offenders against children are family members and the overwhelming number are people otherwise known to the child. Only ten percent of child molesters are complete strangers. Our overprotection of children has far-reaching consequences beyond just keeping them safe: creating a culture of fearful children who jump at their own shadow, a breakdown of community as a child learns to not run to neighbors or law enforcement personnel for help — not to mention never allowing the Little League coach to walk him home. The emphasis on keeping our children safe from predators has negatively impacted the image of men in the eyes of our society. Men walking alone with their children or pushing them on swings in the park are briefly detained and questioned after concerned citizens call the police — a laughable result given how much modern society emphasizes complete co-parenting regardless of gender.

We have come to a point where we have denied our children physical freedom.

Our children have never been safer. And because of this, I let my 2-year-old run around at Walgreen’s (respectfully, of course) as I queue in line for a prescription. I can hear her even if sometimes I don’t see her. I have had more than one person come up to me and warn me she could be snatched away without a thought.

We have come to a point where we have denied our children physical freedom. no longer designed to challenge and harden a child’s capabilities for free thought. Children are strapped into strollers or jammed into a baby carrier on walks, with no freedom to run ahead and discover nature’s miracles on their own. We completely absolve them of personal responsibility and waylay their confidence, not giving them the opportunity to even walk up to the fast food cashier and pay for their own meal and drink, not allowing them to set foot in a public bathroom without eyes on them at all times, paper towels protecting the toilet seat, an extra squirt of sanitizer even after 30 seconds of good hand washing.

Which makes our online practices all the weirder

But even as society jealously guards our children’s well-being in the physical realm, we overdo the freedom in the digital realm. our children’s well-being in the physical realm, we overdo the freedom in the digital realm. More than middle schoolers with iPhones and Facebook accounts, what we do from the day our children are born completely disregards their integrity as little people in their own right. Yes, we have complete and utter control over those little people, but that gives us even more of a mandate to respect their personal boundaries.

Why is it now okay to detail every childish exploit in excruciating detail? Go into the nuances of our daughter’s potty training and talk about the time she talked back to you and got grounded? Look at the Facebook page of almost any mother with young children and you will see mostly pictures of her children detailing their embarrassing moments, their successes, their failures, their terrible-two-tantrums on the floor, the burgeoning ideas about God and the way the world works.

How much longer until that child shuts down and stops verbally exploring the world, afraid of being, in his eyes, ridiculed for his insight?

So let’s think about the two children I mentioned above. At 6 and 7-years-old, children are already feeling a loss of privacy and control over their public lives. I as a mother might think it’s cute to post a hilarious comment my son makes, but that comment was made in earnest. By six, my son will likely be aware that I posted about what he said, and will overhear friends confide in me the next day at lunch: “That was hilarious what you posted on Facebook! I shared it with all my friends too.” How much longer until that child shuts down and stops verbally exploring the world, afraid of being, in his eyes, ridiculed for his insight?

Our children are becoming our accessories. Especially for the stay-at-home mother, who may have had a successful professional career and is now feeling the sting of the lack of recognition and praise that comes with the territory of raising tiny self-absorbed humans, our children are our last realm of pride and accomplishment — or so it seems when one is in the trenches with toddlers. We wear their successes as badges of honor — adorable badges of honor with just the right flavor to make us look better in our friends’ eyes. We are becoming the narcissistic toddlers who do not care about who we step on to extend that feeling, that amazing feeling, of being the center of the universe (or, in Facebook terms, gaining even more likes and shares after you relate the time your baby took his diaper off and made wall art with the contents).

We are becoming the narcissistic toddlers who do not care about who we step on to extend that feeling, that amazing feeling, of being the center of the universe

Why do we do this? One answer is the lack of real community for new mothers. I can personally attest to how isolating it is to have babies back-to-back, move across the country, and leave your career and child-free life behind. Postpartum depression rates are higher than the conventional statistics imply. The pressure to breastfeed makes any perceived failure on that front worse. Add in mothers who go through real, desperate struggles that few others can understand, and there is an overwhelming compulsion to share and share some more. Witness the responses to “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” and the outpouring of support coming from her sharing. But how many people pointed out that this mother is basically letting her entire personal community know that her minor child has severe and possibly threatening mental illness? Very few, in fact. And, even as the original article was written anonymously, the author very quickly came out from under the veil. Now her son is marked for life.

Avoiding idle gossip

Even lesser concerns, of course, portend this oversharing. The growth of the much maligned ‘mommy blog’ is a testament to the incredible desire to know one is not alone with the baby who nurses all day, the toddler who pulls hair, the preschooler who suddenly decides he wants to be back in diapers. These mothers have done a great service to the other moms out there, making us laugh and cry and finally, finally feel good about our desire to just send the kids to a babysitter and have a stiff drink. But at what cost to their own children?

I succumbed to the siren call of online posting about a week after my eldest was born.

Who am I to judge? I, the one with the lofty ideals of not posting information about my children online, succumbed to the siren call about a week after my eldest was born. I have found immense comfort in being able to type up a two-sentence pithy observation at the end of a long day. And, even as I previously limited my posts about children to Facebook (a service that gives only an illusion of privacy), I have now begun instagramming and tweeting and my academic parenting blog has more and more references to the exploits of my own little ones. Why? To be honest, I see the plaudits and recognition afforded to other “moms like me” who humorously detail life with children — you name the funny blog, I’ve probably read it.

They will be the first to tell you they haven’t made much money off their excursions into the blogosphere but I suspect they have gained more fulfillment: not only can they feel good about staying home with their children, but they can also fight that descent into obscurity that often happens when devoting one’s life to family. And I, whether it’s self-centered or not, desire that recognition. It’s hard to love one’s job, as someone once told me, when your job is currently kicking and screaming on the floor.

But when we think of “jobs” we think of careers that are entirely wrapped up in our own lives. Child rearing is a special and unique vocation. It’s the art of letting our kids forge their own identities—identities that are influenced by us, but ultimately distinct from our own. It’s hard to do that when they’re defined from an early age by broadcasting the mistakes they made so that their parents have a never-ending font of meaningless status updates. The freedom to hide our harmless mistakes from the world at large is a matter of simple human dignity. It is both amazing and disconcerting that so many of us don’t think to extend this dignity to those innocent children that trust us to take care of them.