When I was a child growing up in County Limerick in the West of Ireland, I would leave our house after lunch on a Saturday, meet a neighbour and head off across fields, hills, farms and up trees. I would tell my parents where I was going, more or less. Where we went and what we saw was of little concern to anyone but us. So long as we were home for dinner by 6pm, no one had cause to worry.
At school, I knew my fellow pupils, but I wasn’t friendly with many. Because I came from a different place — from the home of artists to a country school with predominantly dairy farming children — I was an easy target for harassment. I survived it, moved on and moved away. It’s an unpleasant memory, but not one I need to think about too regularly. In retrospect, I know kids can be mean monsters to one another.
I can look back on both these memories with a degree of comfort. That might not make much sense, but good memories and bad, these are moments private to me. Sure, I’m sharing them with you now, but you can’t research them or go back and relive them in my stead. There are no posts or likes of these events, no status updates, no shares. They’re in the past, where they belong.
Like many of us, I joined Facebook in 2006. I know this because they recently sent me a video “celebrating” the fact. You probably got one too. Facebook is different things to different people. For me, it has evolved from how I used it when I first joined. In the beginning, the voyeuristic side of me enjoyed posting everything and anything on my feed. I didn’t pay much attention to privacy settings or updates and nothing I saw really bothered me. I had nothing to hide and didn’t really care what someone knew about me. When I married my wife in 2009, it quickly became clear that while my privacy may not mean much to me, I had to consider my wife’s. I curtailed my posting, even leaving Facebook (in as much as one can) for a year. When I returned, I did so more cautiously, with eyes open wider. I used it to stay in touch with people. I posted the odd funny. With an Instagram and a Twitter account, I found a happy medium in the amount and how often I posted to Facebook. It’s a nice place to share photos of comets I have tried to capture. But that’s as far as it goes now.
When our daughter was born a year and a half ago, my wife and I discussed, at length, my posting of any images of our new-born online. The proud father in me wanted to show her off to the world; I wanted my friends and colleagues to see her. But during a particular conversation with my wife, she said to me, “Our daughter can’t protect her own privacy. You need to do it for her.” I realised then that I wanted to post these images for me. And I knew that I have some “friends” on social media who, if they stopped me in the street and asked to see a photo of my daughter, I would say no.
So I agreed. I limited myself to a forty-size-word status update announcing her birth. The highlight of my life with my wife has been the birth of our daughter. The highlight of the video that Facebook kindly “made” for me was that status update. This paradox disturbs me.
But in twenty years, no potential employer will be able to go through any social media and find a photo of my daughter in her nappy.
In fifteen years, no classmate will be able to bully her over some ridiculous photo of a moment I or a relative posted about her to social media.
And in ten years when she’s walking home from school, no stranger in a car will be able to say to her, “Your dad is Tady Walsh, I’ve seen photos of you on Facebook. Why don’t you hop in my car and I’ll give you a lift home.”
When she is older, my daughter can visit her grandparent’s house and point, giggle and gasp at the photos of me as a child. She’ll do this with my blessing and my love. I have nothing to hide from her. But what she has and what she is now, is hers. These are her moments. The photos of her that we share with our family and friends, are limited and careful. You’ll never see them, at least, not through me.
And while the freedom I enjoyed as a child may not be the same freedom that I can provide for my daughter, whatever memories or moments she grows up with will be hers. If, when she’s old enough, she decides to share these moments with you, then they will be on her terms, not because of something I have posted on some social network somewhere.
All social media outlets have privacy policies. But for the most part, they are free platforms. And the price of free is giving up control over what happens in the future. Perhaps you haven’t updated your email address on Facebook since they changed it for you in mid-2012. What makes you think they’ll always protect your photos?
I once read a comment which said, “Never say anything on social media you wouldn’t be comfortable saying into a megaphone on a crowded pedestrian street.” I consider these wise words I’ve tried to heed. Every now and then I slip up, but I’ll apologise and delete where necessary. I think a similar rule of thumb should be, “Never post a photo of your children on social media you wouldn’t be happy to see blown up on a billboard at the entrance to the largest supermarket in town.”
Your children can’t protect their privacy. Protect it for them.