Why do you put photos of your children on Facebook?

A rant against parents who knowingly dump their babies in the Panopticon

The social media habit of some of my friends that I find most offputting is the frequent appearance of photos of their children.

The worst offenders have profile photos that show them holding up their progeny like trophies that prove mom and dad are heterosexual and fertile. Or perhaps the pictures send a message that my friends are already breeding, so unavailable for flirting and poking? Or is it to signal that despite failures in other aspects of their lives, they have successfully reproduced? Well done chaps.

Aside from their questionable taste, I believe these people are doing their kids a great diservice. They are making decisions that will affect their children’s future identity and privacy in ways we can barely guess at. How much do you trust Facebook with your data, your images, and what it knows about you and your friends? How much do you trust the NSA? Even if you’re “not doing anything wrong”, even if you are willing to trade your own privacy for the convenience of easily sharing links and vacation photos, why would any caring parent want to make those decisions for their children, choosing the riskier option?

As someone born in the 1970s, my childhood remains private, recorded only on paper diaries written by me, and on printed photographs stored on my parents’ bookshelves, mostly undigitized. My teenage peccadillos and the sins of my students days are mercifully unrecorded. My digital trail starts in the 1990s, when I was already a working adult, old enough to take responsibility for all my actions and deeds.

It’s not possible to live like we used to. Unless your home is an isolated hut in the Sahara desert without an Internet connection, you can’t grow up that way anymore. If you interact with any people at all or attend any social event, someone will take photos and those images will be saved, emailed, or uploaded to Facebook, leaving a digital trail that perhaps only a global nuclear war could remove. That trail may cause your child no harm. But it may one day lead unscrupulous advertisers, the NSA, the Chinese secret police, the local school bully or a perverted stalker straight to your child.

Maximizing your child’s exposure to such risks is not responsible parenting.

Post script
Added several hours after publishing the above - June 29, 2013

A Facebook friend of mine (!) posted a link to this rant, and received some comments. One said “There is no such thing as privacy anymore. It is a dead, outdated concept, and it will not be revived before my daughter is an adult.”

This is not only about privacy, it’s also about your child’s identity. We are human beings, not amoebas. How would you like it if your mother and father were in charge of your social media presence? That’s what you’re doing to your children.

Perhaps my language in the rant above was a little over the top, but it’s because I think most people do not think for even a minute before splattering the Internet with their children’s photos, names, ages, and habits. I think they should — at the very least — pause before clicking “share”.

Update and Counterpoint - June 30, 2013
The rant above hurt and annoyed friends and acquaintances, and also caused several people to write emails (fair and foul) in response. Below I publish the most thoughtful response, from a good, old friend of mine. Like me, he is a foreign naitonal d’un certain âge who lives in Beijing with a wife and young kids .

For the record, I repeat and clarify that I think you people, including all my friends and relatives, who splatter photos of your kids on Facebook and other social media websites are completely nuts, but below you can read the most eloquent defence of such practices that I have so far received.


Hi Jeremy, interesting post - no offense taken, of course, but you might consider posting this as an anonymous counterpoint to your post:

I can see where you’re coming from with the privacy concerns, but I must say I personally feel rather jaded about the general uproar over all of this in the news.

I’m quite sure Mark Zuckerberg was a smarmy, cocky asshole as an upstart - it seems very likely that he still is - but from the time we started receiving telemarketing calls for insurance (even before our first child was born) and the fact that we live in the world’s number surveillance state, I’ve never been under the false presumption that any of our lives are “off the record” from the government or the corporations pulling their strings (and vice versa).

As an American I think my countrymen have been rather naive to presume the US govt would do no less of the same.

Call me cynical but i think that simply bringing our children into this rather nasty world has placed them at great risk and I’m not sure that a few family themed albums on Facebook outweighs any of the other horrible things (the air, this society, etc) we expose them to each day.

I have always considered Facebook my most “personal” social network - a place to share day-to-day experiences with family and friends. I don’t relish the idea that the NSA and Mark Zuckerberg are spying in either, but if they are then let it be known that I have two lovely kids and I live in Beijing and my family means more to me than anything else. (The IRS is already pretty familiar with this).

Reading your post will indeed make me think twice about who I will allow access to my albums in the future, but I quite like the fact my facebook friends and relatives can see my kids grow up from afar and that every year I have a public place to memorialize my late parents.

I think what is bugging me the most about this discussion is the sentiment that seeing photos of “other people’s kids” is “annoying.”

I, too, could give a rat’s ass about the spawn of strangers, and I agree that some people do “over share”, but when it comes to seeing pictures of the children of my family, friends and colleagues on Facebook and Wechat - i am always rather delighted to see these miniature versions of people i know, love and respect. I would hope my FB friends would feel the same way.

If you generally do not, then you may want reconsider the types of people you are friending on Facebook.”

Update 2 - A thoughtful response from John Biesnecker
This is by my friend John, who is also on Medium.

I think the “how much do you trust the NSA?” line of argument is a red herring. Any intelligence agency (the NSA might be particularly well-funded and good at what they do, but they’re not alone by any stretch of the imagination) with an interest in someone is going to be able to collect hard intelligence about that person, irregardless of the availability of Facebook photos from their childhood. I think the “perverted stalker” line is mostly a red herring as well, though I’ll admit that it’s more viable that such photos could have material value to a perverted stalker (who is presumably limited in his or her means of acquiring such data) where this is clearly not the case for a major power’s intelligence services.

My wife and I do have ground rules for posting things, the most basic of which being never to post something that we’d be embarrassed about if our parents had posted something similar of us as a child. Is this making choices for our children? Yes, but so is virtually everything else one does as the parent of a small child — and some of those choices have real, material, immediate impacts on your child’s life, impacts far greater, I would argue, than photos posted on Facebook.

You make a good point, though you don’t expound on it, regarding the inevitability of one’s identity showing up online. If this is indeed inevitable — and I agree that it is — then you’re far better off controlling and shaping that narrative to the extent possible, rather than allowing it to be shaped for you by others. As someone with a strange last name (there are less than a dozen people alive today with the exact spelling of my last name, and I know all of them), I learned a while ago the importance of this. Someone — I figured out who it was eventually, though I never bothered to find out why they did it — started an anonymous blog posting some pretty vile things about a friend and I. Both of us have unusual names, and had we not been active in shaping our online identity pretty much anyone could have found what this person had written, perhaps with rather negative consequences for us. In reality, though, virtually nobody found it because it was buried on page 20 of the Google results for my name, and nothing other some personal annoyance came of it. We were both of a generation that necessarily began the process of establishing public, electronic identities as adults, but our children are not, and I think if done responsibly — with a focus on the positive, and with a mind to how we’d feel if the same information was shared about us — we will hand our children an asset not a liability.

Update 3: A post on Medium by someone who agrees with me Mommy Bloggers and Daddy Facebookers

South African born and raised,lived my entire adult life in Beijing, run Danwei.com, usually write about China but maybe not here

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