Extremely (Prematurely) Online

What's in a name? I'll tell you what: the potential for ridicule, misunderstanding, preconceived notions, the presence or absence of mystical significance (depending on what you believe)…but most of all, a lack of input from the owner. Most of us don't get to pick our names until we're legally old enough, but all of us are stuck with any potential drawbacks for the name somebody assigned without our opinion or permission.

I read an insightful article in The Atlantic about kids and their involuntary online lives. I was surprised to read about children as young as 7 realizing that so much information about them was available for all to see. My bias is showing, of course, forgetting how much I was aware of the world around me some 30 years ago. I also didn't grow up in a world where my every move from birth to adulthood could potentially end up in the digital town square – without my opinion or permission. The article reminded me of two conversations I'd had around photographing children.

A barista pal at the coffee shop was rather pointed: parents shouldn't be posting photos of their kids on the internet. It wasn't a matter of safety, but a matter of consent. My gut reaction was dismissal because she was in her mid 20s at the time (and folks in their mid 20s frequently think they've solved the world) and had no children of her own. But I didn't have any good reasons for why I disagreed. "Friends and family want to see the photos!" "Everybody does it!" "They'll post far worse things on their own when they're reckless teenagers!" Those are all deflections. It's easy to cling to the notion that I'm the parent, and my kids have no say until they're adults, but I never had to confront some portion of my youth catalogued in public. All my embarrassing childhood photos were in a shoebox in my mom's closet.

The other conversation was with a friend of mine who is a fine art photographer. Much of her grad school work revolved around children not too different in age from those in the article linked above. She told me that she was starting to focus on the notion of consent – whether children could understand the implication of having their image shaped by a photograph, and working to ensure that children were made aware of what was happening and were okay with it.

Let's be clear: I still take photos of my kids, and I still post them on the internet. It's not just the parental impulse to share about your kids; it's the modern, extremely-online impulse to share anything about my life.

But over the past year, I started to notice that my daughter didn't always want her picture taken. And I'm working hard on respecting that. Since her early refusals, I've tried to make a point of asking whether I can take her picture. Here are a few ideas I'm working on in my head to address the situation, some of which come from that Atlantic article.

  • Continue asking my kids (my son is almost 3, so I think I can start asking his permission) if it's okay to photograph them.
  • Give an age-appropriate explanation to my daughter (who's old enough to understand some of this) about sharing personal information on the internet, and start asking her permission to share photos publicly. If she says "no", I should respect her wishes.
  • If my daughter asks me to remove something after the fact, I should respect her wishes.
  • I think I need to do some periodic review with my kids as they get older. Minors aren't supposed to be bound by contracts in the United States, and we have laws governing sexual consent, and the consumption of different vices. Not every kid is capable of independent decision making at the same arbitrary age, but I need to accept that my 5 year old may have a very different view of what's okay for me to share than when she's 15.

I don't think of this as ceding parental authority to the whims and moods of my children. My hope is that I model and help them to understand consent in some pretty basic forms now, while their minds are developing. I have no illusions about staving off reckless online oversharing when they get older, but I can at least show them what it means to have some small control over their lives online.

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