I love it when I see pictures of my friends' kids on Facebook. I feel like I'm sharing a little bit of their lives, seeing them grow and develop. And sometimes the posts are hilarious.
But, as with any kind of social media sharing, sometimes it becomes too much, and I grow concerned. I do not have children, so the things I say here are simply the observations of a single woman. But I am a teacher and a nanny, and I spend a lot of time with kids. I was also that kid who wrote things in her journal for her future self, just to make sure that when I was an adult, I didn’t forget what it was like to be a kid. I hope to always remember what it felt like to receive punishment that I felt was unjust (even if I know now that it wasn’t). I don’t ever want to forget those times when I closed the door to my room and tipped my head back so that my tears wouldn’t fall onto my cheeks, because I was self-conscious about my family members knowing my true feelings. Children have a narrow lens of the world, and a limited experience that makes their focus heightened, intense, and all-consuming.
It’s because of this that I feel concerned with the overuse of social media in relation to kids. As I said, I love having a window into the lives of those who are far away. But I grow concerned when my newsfeed blows up with constant posts about people's children. I grow concerned when parents ask for super personal advice in such an open forum. I especially grow concerned when a child is grumpy, or does something wrong, and a parent's first impulse is to take a photo and post it for the world to see.
My concern isn't really safety, though of course that's one issue. My concern is that we are the first generation to utilize social media in relation to our children, and I'm not sure all the ramifications are being thought through. For better or for worse, social media is what we've got, and it's going to change things. But I think it's worth considering how it'll feel for children to grow up with their entire lives—from conception onwards—documented online. As adults with access to our own profiles and active agents who are free to make our own choices, we can curate our own online image as much as we want to. Kids, on the other hand, have no say over what or how their parents post. And while some of this is par for the course as a kid—with or without social media, children have always had to come to terms with the fact that their parents will say or do what they want—parents should not be naive enough to assume that kids have no understanding of their online image, or no stake in the matter.
A friend of mine is a preschool teacher, and she shared a story with me about how one of her students—a girl who was three years old—was distraught one day, and nothing would comfort her. Finally, the teachers found her mom’s Facebook profile and let the girl scroll through photos. The girl calmed down, and my friend told me that it was apparent that there was emotional memory attached to the photos. The child made the connection that she had been happy in the pictures, and it made her feel better.
Kids have a knowledge of their own online presence from a very young age. When I was growing up the most important thing to me—far and above anything else—was what my parents thought of me. If my parents showed that they trusted me, I was relieved and proud. If my parents were unhappy with me, I was ashamed and angry. And if anyone else knew about the situation, my world came crumbling down. There are so many things that don’t seem like a big deal to adults, or just seem funny or cute. Everything is a big deal to a child. It’s worth considering the piercing embarrassment a child feels when someone other than a family member is privy to their wrongdoing or foolishness, even if it means sacrificing sharing something hilarious with online friends.
Posting pictures of kids is a blessing for those far away, and I’m certainly not advocating removing all photos and stories about kids from the internet. But we all know how embarrassing it was when our parents said or did things in front of friends. I doubt anyone wants their kid coming up to them ten years later and saying, "Remember when I was sobbing so hard I was hiccuping and you thought it was funny so you took a video and posted it online? Not funny to me, mom." Or, "Remember when I was eight and I peed my pants and you posted a picture to Facebook? Thanks, dad."
It's impossible to parent without inflicting some pain, because we're human and we're imperfect. And it's doubly hard to navigate something no parent has had to navigate before. But it seems worthwhile, to me, to not only consider when and how to allow kids their own time online, but to also consider how we represent them and ourselves on social media. It's not just their physical safety that needs to be guarded, but also their perception of themselves and the trust they place in their parents. It’s not easy to be a kid—my journal entries assure me of that. Having an online presence at such an early age must be doubly hard.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria