From the moment that pink solid line appeared on the pregnancy test, every little decision felt monumental. Home birth or hospital? Cloth or disposable? Co-sleeper or crib? Sling or stroller?
With each choice, I did more research than perhaps a person should do and there was almost always more information than I needed. By the time my last trimester came around, I had strategies in place for nearly every aspect of parenting. I had it figured out. Except, that is, when it came to what was supposedly my subject of greatest expertise: how to manage the online presence of my kid.
(Little did I know, however, that those “strategies” would mean nothing once I started parenting in practice instead of in theory, but hey, it made me feel better to have a plan at the time.)
Managing a child’s online identity is a tricky subject, and particularly for parents of young children. There’s a lot of information and advice on how to work with your teen or preteen on making good choices when it comes to their presence on the web. But what if they can’t even chew solid food yet?
My daughter’s generation will be the first to have their baby photos on Facebook — perhaps even one of the first generations that could have an embarrassing diaper pic sealed for eternity in the Wayback Machine if their parents aren’t careful.
Like with most parenting decisions, there’s no perfect approach. The only real right way to do anything is to be thoughtful about it. But here’s how my husband and I — and a few other parents — have navigated the issue.
Communications Strategy for Newborn
As funny as it felt, with a few weeks left in my pregnancy, I asked my husband to sit down with me and craft a “communications strategy” for our firstborn, particularly for her arrival.
I started thinking about whether I would be comfortable with my 700+ Facebook “friends” and their friends and their friends and their friends — seeing photos of my daughter’s first breaths of life. I started to squirm a little.
For months, I’d been working on our birth plan and as part of that, I spent a lot of time agonizing about who I might want in the room with us. But up until those last few weeks, I hadn’t thought of who I might want in the room with us — in the virtual sense.
Furthermore, I hadn’t even begun to think about who might be there, virtually, to see her first steps, her first meal, her first words, her first day of school. So, we started thinking about how to manage our daughter’s online presence — before she was born.
The way I saw it, the photos would be the most important thing to manage, and for that, there are basically three ways to go: 1) No photos of the kid on the Internet (unless in password-protected or invitation-only albums); 2) a restricted presence, with a parent at the controls; or 3) a free-for-all.
I would have hoped to be in the no photos category. Not because I’m afraid someone’s going to steal my daughter or exploit her photo. (We’ve all heard the horror stories — try this one in The New York Times about a mother who discovered a photo of her 4-year-old on a Brazilian social networking site with a “sexy” rating. It turned out to be a prank, but still.) And it certainly wasn’t because I’m by nature a private person (more on that in a bit). Rather, I thought I’d like to be in this category because somewhere, I believe that Willa’s story should be hers to tell and right now, she’s occupied with other, more important things, like you know, learning how to chew and walk and talk.
One of my friends, who is very judicious about what photos of her son go online, put it best when she wrote: “He can’t really make the decision to be online so I might as well err on the side of ‘he might not want pictures of his naked bum online when he goes to get a job at 18 and someone Googles him — if that still exists — and doesn’t hire him.’”
I like this approach. Until she’s old enough to make her own choice, I shouldn’t choose for her.
Can’t Keep Her Under Wraps
The thing is though, complete restriction of Willa’s online presence isn’t really an option for us. First of all, my husband and I run a small farm — a business that thrives on us telling our story. Naturally, that story has to involve our adorable local, organic, pasture-raised baby.
Also, as a writer, I write and blog about our life, our farm life, our parenting life, our rural life, and I write about it a lot. And what’s a mommy/farm blogger/columnist to do with a super-cute baby? Keep her under wraps? Can’t do it.
Finally, since I was a kid, I’ve been what you might call an over-sharer (hence the personal essay to explore this very topic.) There’s just not much in my life I find private. I even once volunteered to talk about a rare virus on the local evening news, by explaining in detail my personal experience with the sickness, saying into the camera, for all to hear, that I’d suffered “severe, explosive, diarrhea and vomiting. At the same time.”
For someone who started out over-sharing, the advent of social networking is like a rock-and-roller discovering the invention of the electric guitar and the amplifier. Add a kid into that mix and it’s all I can do to not overwhelm you right now with 150 photos from this weekend alone.
Still, having said all that, I was very uncomfortable with the free-for-all approach. First of all, I didn’t want certain photos posted. Some photos are for us and for family. I wanted to keep some things intimate. I wanted some moments to just be ours.
Mostly, though, I did not want other people posting photos of my baby without my permission. I had a moment, a few months ago, when that became crystal clear.
The Beer Can Incident
We were at a barbeque and I’d forgotten Willa’s sun hat. So, I covered her head with one of her dad’s red bandanas, biker style. Then, God forbid, the little teether found someone’s unopened, cold Coors Light can and started biting on the top. It was — as all photos of kids with beer seem to be — hilarious. Cell phones clicked and I immediately started freaking out about how many Facebook walls this was going to end up on.
So, we politely asked the one person we were worried about, the one we knew would post it, not to post it to Facebook. The others, one of them a parent of an under-one as well, must have seen the look on my face, because they immediately told us that they’d send the photo — but only to us privately.
I know it seems a bit hypocritical: asking others not to post photos of my kid while I blanket the Internet with my photos of her. But, it’s a matter of who’s in control.
I want to be extra careful about what people see and where they see it and how they see it. I want to be the manager of this story, not only for the safety reasons. (One parent told me the most important thing she looks for in posting photos is that there are no major identifying landmarks to show her daughter’s exact location or the school she goes to.) I also want to know what photos are out there and who has access to them. I know that’s never possible, really, but I’d like to at least try.
Also, because for now, I’m her judgment. I want to be the one to decide what the world sees of my little girl.
So, for us, this moderated approach seems to work for now. We’re careful with what we post and we control — as much as we can — what other people share as well.
Use your parental gut
Figuring all this out is about finding your own ground rules, your own strategy. And most of all listening to your intuition and your kid.
So, really, the only tips you should need are common wisdom:
1. Always listen to your parental gut, even if it’s quiet. If something makes you uncomfortable on behalf of your child, act on it.
Don’t be afraid to ask people, for instance, as they’re snapping photos of your kid, to keep the photos private or to send them to you first and let you decide what goes online. (On the other hand, always ask a parent’s permission before posting photos of their kids, whether that be at a birthday party or a school play or at a family picnic. It’s just good etiquette.)
2. Be safe. This is a given, but all the parents I talked to were adamant about privacy settings. One even makes sure that the location finder is off on the photography apps on his phone “to prevent my posted pictures from detailing the location of my house or other sensitive locations. All of this is not to say that someone couldn’t connect information from various sources and determine where I live through other means, such as a phone book, but I do attempt to make it harder.”
3. As in all things, moderate. And by moderate, I mean both practice moderation and actually moderate — make sure you are the one calling the shots for your child.
4. Be thoughtful in your approach. Don’t go one way because fear takes you there. Don’t go the other way because you’re afraid of fighting with your aunt about that naked bathtub photo she wants to put on her Facebook page. Think through each photo and each bit of information you share. It’s hard, on this Internet, to not get sucked into the immediacy of it. Take a moment and think about it before you post. And, put yourself in your kid’s tiny shoes for a second. If you were him, would you want detailed information about your last diaper posted for all your dad’s friends to see? Maybe not.
Basically, I’m saying use the edit button. One of my good friends, an amazing photographer who does great work with child portraiture (see his photo essay on kids and technology, fitting for this series, here) wrote recently:
“I think web-sharing needs to be done well and that it is very easy to overdo. Not all pictures should be posted on the Internet. You don’t need to share every single picture of your vacation, birthday party, recital, etc. Edit! Pick a few of the better pictures, the ones that portray the event or moment the best and post those. For me, photography is a tool for telling stories. For sharing and invoking reactions. There seems to be an urge for acceptance by some, or an environment of seeking complements. People bomb Flickr or Facebook with mediocre pictures and then troll for compliments and back-patting.”
5. Which brings me to the final tip: Try to understand your reasons for sharing. This one is a little hard to get at and there’s a lot of gray area, but we all know parents who share information or photos about their kids, because of they reaction that they — the parents — get and that’s just not a good enough reason to hijack your kids’ story.
If you’re sharing photos to brighten the days of the friends and family who love your kids but aren’t there to see their cute morning bedhead or their first mouthful of peas, awesome. If you’re sharing to tell the story of your family to connect with others, wonderful. If you’re doing some harmless showing off, that’s OK too. Everybody, especially a sleep-deprived new mom, needs corroboration from time to time that her screaming kid is a total cutie.
But there’s a fine line. Just make sure you’re taking that last little bit of advice and be thoughtful about it all. If you’re sharing — anything online, but especially your kids — to build yourself up or fill a void, be wary.
And with that, I’ll leave you with this one last photo of my impossibly cute kid.
Managing editor Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor and farmer based in central Montana, where the Rocky Mountain Front collides with the high plains. She is the co-founder and former editor in chief of the online magazine NewWest.Net. She also co-created and ran the Rural News Network, a J-Lab New Voices project at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, which helped small towns revive or create their own online newspapers. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s helping her husband wrangle 150 heritage turkeys, 15 acres of food, overgrown weeds or their new daughter. She blogs about life on the farm, and other things, at www.lifecultivated.com.
Check out more stories in our special series, Kids & Media, on MediaShift.