Removing My Children From the Internet

About a week ago I began deleting all photos and videos of my children from the Internet. This is proving to be no easy task. Like many parents, I’ve excitedly shared virtually every step, misstep and milestone that myself and my children have muddled our way through.

Removing My Children From the Internet

To be honest, aside from making sure my Facebook privacy permissions were set, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought about sharing photos of the kids online. I’ve run this blog (in various formats) for about a decade, and sharing stuff on it was just what I did. What I’ve always done. It’s sort of the point of it. And when in the last few years I’ve started blogging less and posting on Facebook more, I carried that same sense of “my life is an open book” with me to the social network.

My view on sharing photos of the kids has always been that the advantages of having an easy, centralized way of sharing photos with an extended family that are thousands of kilometres away outweighed the largely fictional threat of creepy people having access to them.

Several months ago I read Jeremy Goldkorn’s rant on the subject. The article itself is excellent food for thought, but it was something in a post-script that resonated most with me:

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.

At the time I was resistant to surrendering my position, which it appears many other readers of the article shared, that we now live in an extremely interconnected world where privacy is simply not the same as it used to be. I was looking at this strictly as a “privacy” issue, and I felt that keeping baby photos off the Internet was akin to bailing a tide pool.

In the months since, I’ve returned to topic a few times and found myself increasingly conflicted about things. In response to Jeremy, a mutual friend, John Biesnecker, added the following point to the discussion:

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.

Now it should be noted that John works for Facebook, and so one would assume that at least to some degree his views would align with the company’s share-friendly ethos. However, he makes a good point about acting as a guardian of your child’s online identity. And that brings us to my tipping point, Amy Webb’s article on Slate, in which she shares the story of “Kate” and her share-happy parents:

With every status update, YouTube video, and birthday blog post, Kate’s parents are preventing her from any hope of future anonymity.

That poses some obvious challenges for Kate’s future self. It’s hard enough to get through puberty. Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates? If Kate’s mother writes about a negative parenting experience, could that affect her ability to get into a good college? We know that admissions counselors review Facebook profiles and a host of other websites and networks in order to make their decisions.

There’s a more insidious problem, though, which will haunt Kate well into the adulthood. Myriad applications, websites, and wearable technologies are relying on face recognition today, and ubiquitous bio-identification is only just getting started. In 2011, a group of hackers built an app that let you scan faces and immediately display their names and basic biographical details, right there on your mobile phone. Already developers have made a working facial recognition API for Google Glass. While Google has forbidden official facial recognition apps, it can’t prevent unofficial apps from launching. There’s huge value in gaining real-time access to view detailed information the people with whom we interact.

The easiest way to opt-out is to not create that digital content in the first place, especially for kids. Kate’s parents haven’t just uploaded one or two photos of her: They’ve created a trove of data that will enable algorithms to learn about her over time. Any hopes Kate may have had for true anonymity ended with that ballet class YouTube channel.

It forced me to really dig deep into why I share photos of my kids. Convenience? Sure. But there are convenient ways to share photos with family that don’t run the risk of my kids unwittingly being used in advertisements or enshrined in Google Image searches for all time. While Zoë Stagg attributes it to ego, and while there is some science to back that up, I believe it was pride that was leading me to share.

Of course as pride goes, pride for your children is about the best kind there is. But after I put it in that context, I realized that the statement isn’t “convenience > fleeting privacy” but rather “sharing pride < maintaining control". The pride I have for my children, and the resulting desire to share that with everyone that will listen (and "like" it) is not worth my children not having some modicum of control of their online identity and anonymity in the future.

And so I've taken a tip from Amy Webb's article and expanded on something I had already done to a limited extent — in addition to removing all media featuring them from the public Internet, I've created a digital trust of sorts. I’ve registered domain names and e-mail accounts for both boys. They may never use them, but at least they’ll have the option to in the future, and it will give them a leg up on managing their digital identities when they reach an age when that will be important to them.

It may be inevitable that when they grow tall enough to have cameras and social media accounts they’ll share every mundane and embarrassing detail of their lives, with Facebook and Google mining it all for advertisers. And so be it, such is the world in which we live. As their father I don’t feel it’s my job to insulate my children from the world, but rather it’s to be the best custodian of their future selves I can be. Most of the time that means preparing them with the knowledge and tools they’ll need, in this case it means understanding I don’t need to share my pride in them in digital media format for that pride to exist, and in the process it means protecting their digital identities long enough for them to make a mess of it themselves.

This post originally appeared on Ryan McLaughlin.com.