The World Wide Web isn’t only a wonderful thing, it is also an inherent part of our culture. All UK schools have some form of internet connection, and in 2014, 70% of them had tablet computers. Many jobs require you to apply online. It’s now a cultural norm to ask for someone’s WiFi password upon entering their home, and it’s often deemed ok to stare at our phones the whole time after receiving it.
After pondering this, I began to think about what it would have been like for me if this had always been the case. I’m twenty-one, so I’m among the last generation who has an idea what life was like pre-internet. If I’d grown up among the age of social media, an age with very little privacy and fast-travelling news, how would my outlook be different? Would my personal space boundaries be the same? How would I fare with strangers? If I saw commotion on the street, would I help or would I Snapchat it?
The answer would probably depend on those responsible for me, namely parents and carers, but also teachers, family friends, and other relations. Children are publicly displayed on social media from when they are foetuses (we’ve all seen at least ten instances of baby scans as Facebook cover photos). Naturally, baby’s first photograph follows soon after, eyes still closed, vernix intact. This’ll be a running trend throughout the child’s life, until they reach twelve or thirteen and get accounts of their own. For many kids today, getting a social media account is a rite of passage, much like starting secondary school, or getting their first pet. I wonder whether some of this excitement comes from their finally being able to create their own digital identity, instead of worrying about how their parents will portray them. But until then, the world will see and hear about those first steps, those toothless cheesers in school photos, those sports day victories, those ridiculous Halloween costumes, and probably lots of those tantrums, too, along with potty training, weird haircuts, and even that dreaded puberty phase. When parents endorse in this oversharing of their children’s lives, it’s called ‘sharenting’.
The fact that it is now possible for parents to post online updates about their children is a positive thing in many ways, the main thing being the ability to share those priceless moments with friends and family. Even my 90-year-old grandmother uses Facebook to keep in touch with her adult grandchildren, and it gives her so much joy that I couldn’t dream of taking it away from her. And I’m not saying that we should take it away from those who get joy out of staying in touch with their young grandchildren online. But there are risks that come with sharenting, such as ‘digital kidnapping’ and overstepping private boundaries. But because the internet (and with that, social media) is now intrinsic to society, we too often accept this, without considering who it will impact first and foremost. This is why it’s crucial for those responsible to take a step back once in a while, and to assess how safe they are being with someone else’s information. We wouldn’t overshare information about a stranger, because that would be seen as dangerous and creepy, and in some instances, illegal. So why do we do it to our own children?
In a recent BBC news clip, kids around the age of eight were being interviewed about their feelings on parents uploading their pictures to social media. Many reported that they don’t give consent but that their parents do it anyway. An article in the Tech Times reported that fifty percent of parents are worried about their kids growing up and becoming embarrassed about what has been posted about them online, suggesting that many of them are aware of this issue, but are unable to escape the allure.
So how do we make things better for the little ones that we love so much? First, if they’re not so little, ask them. Any child who is capable of speaking and understanding language is capable of giving or denying consent. If the child is too young to understand, be very cautious of who you show their picture to. Facebook now has the option of choosing who out of your friends can see your posts. You might want to show that adorable picture of your baby nephew dressed as a Pumpkin to your aunt Irene, but not that creepy guy who sat across from you in maths at school ten years ago. In other words, don’t overshare pictures of another person, no matter how small they are, just because you can’t be bothered changing a setting. Finally, make sure you’re regularly checking your privacy settings. A good way to do this is by getting someone you know to remove you as a friend, and then asking them which of your posts they can see on your Facebook page. Treat kids’ information as you would like yours to be treated. We’re always telling them to be safe online. Maybe it’s time we start listening to our own advice.
[Sarinah O’Donoghue – @historysactor]