I’ve made the conscious choice not to have pictures or other details of my children on social media sites. I appeared on The Feed on SBS 2 tonight to explain why. Here’s my longer form explanation of my position.
Image: Sean MacEntee
So here’s a thing. Yesterday I got a text from Marc Fennell. I’ve appeared on Marc’s award-winning Radio National show Download This Show on and off over the past couple of years, as well as popping up recently on The Feed discussing misogyny and geek culture.
Marc knows that I’m a parent, and he asked me if I knew any parents who were opposed to putting photos or information about their kids online.
I don’t think he realised that that statement applied very solidly to me and my family, so I told him so, and he asked if I’d be willing to appear on camera to explain why I was opposed.
I mean, it’s a weird thing for a technology journalist to not like technology, right?
In this case, it’s not the technology I dislike. It’s the implications of that technology, and more particularly how it relates to my role as a parent. This isn’t just my decision as paternal law, either; it’s a considered position that my wife and I have come to having debated the issues around it.
Before I start, though, I should point out that, like every other parenting decision you can make, everything is relative and there’s no one true “right” way to do this stuff. I’m working within what I’m comfortable with, and you may have a completely different worldview. I’m totally fine with that, and I don’t want anyone to think that I’m telling them how to raise their kids, or even putting mine up on a pedestal over their kids.
For a start, if you put my kids on a pedestal, they’d fight, and somebody would fall off and hurt themselves, and then I’d spend hours in A&E (again!). I’d rather avoid that.
Anyway, the issues of TV production mean that it’s tough to get lengthy and nuanced arguments across. I know what I’ve said in my interview, but not everything makes it to air. Such is the reality of TV editing.
With that in mind, here’s why I’ve taken this particular stance in regards to information about my kids and online social media
For me, it’s a question of risk and reward. The reward of sharing pics and information about your kids online is that you can disseminate to a very wide audience very easily. That’s obvious, but it’s not something that’s exclusively the province of social media. I can privately email pictures or stories to people, or make them available in secure online cloud storage services if I like.
That’s it for the rewards.
That brings up the risks, and I think there are three of them.
1: The privacy aspect
This is perhaps the most obvious aspect of putting information about your kids online. You’re giving up a significant part of your privacy in doing so. Again, yes, I get that it’s social media and that’s kind of the point, but what I think gets ignored or missed in this debate is quite how public some of this media actually is.
Image: Daniel Oines
Facebook is the obvious example. When was the last time you checked your Facebook privacy settings? Do you even know how to? Facebook changes its privacy settings on a whim, and to my view makes it obstructively difficult to lock down your privacy. The logical thing to do there is presume that everything you’re publishing is in fact totally public. It would only take a few simple Facebook changes behind the scenes for your information to be entirely public.
Now think about pics or stories about your kids. Would you shout them from a street corner to anyone and everyone?
Other social services aren’t dissimilar, and that’s leaving aside the issue of genuine data breaches, which are also always feasible.
2: The information aspect
I know a number of people who do in fact carefully lock down their Facebook profiles, keeping secure details such as their date of birth quite private. Some of these same people happily post pictures of their kids’ birthday parties online. It doesn’t take a great deal of detective work to count back the number of stated years and sort out their exact details, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are locations, both home and school to consider, for a start.
That information has power and value, and both things are a concern that I honestly suspect a lot of people simply don’t consider. Again, do what feels right to your comfort level with this information, but there are some evident risks.
There’s the obvious child predatory issue. I’m not paranoid enough to think that there’s isn’t a lot of media hype around this issue, but equally ignorance is not bliss in my view when it comes to protecting my children. If I let the world know who they are, where they go to school and how old they are, it becomes much easier for an unknown third party to manipulate them into potentially unsafe online and real world situations. I don’t want that.
There’s also the identity theft issue. Think about what you have to do when calling up your bank to check some detail or another. I’m willing to bet they ask you for your date of birth, right? Well, as again, you’ve made that information blatantly available, and in fact something that even a half-decent programmer could automate into a script. Identity theft can encompass everything from fraud through to identity assumption for nefarious purposes. Again, in the SBS interview I used a deliberately extreme example — the well-known case of Mossad creating fake Australian passports — and while that’s an extreme, it’s an illustration of the power of information.
Beyond that, there’s an obvious business financial benefit to this information. I’ve argued this point before whenever anyone whinges about Facebook making changes. We’re not Facebook’s customers in any way at all.
We’re the product that Facebook sells to advertisers, and the more information they have, the more advertising they can send your way. Or the more information that can become part of an information portfolio that could affect everything from employment to insurance to school possibilities. Far too many people, in my view, just don’t think about this kind of stuff.
Again, if you’re fine and comfortable with it, then fine. More power to you.
3: The social identity aspect
I’m not banning my kids from social media for life. For a start, that would be patently impossible, and largely counter-productive. Tell a child that something is banned, and you create an instant desire to find out why, if nothing else. Most social networks have age limits (often ignored) that suggest they won’t sign up anyone under the age of 13, which I think is quite sensible.
But what I don’t want to do is have my kids assume social identities — and again, I’m using Facebook as the example, because it’s still the primary social network right now, but that could change in the next few years — only to find that I’ve littered their online social identity with pictures that were “cute” to me but could be either mortifying or have harassment potential for them.
From an adult perspective, would you be happy if your parents suddenly dumped hundreds of pics of you in nappies, or falling off a bike, or covered in mud, or a thousand other childhood examples? How well would that go down in the workplace? Would you be uncomfortable with it?
In one sense, it doesn’t matter if you think you would, because what I feel I’d be doing is making that choice for them. Maybe they’d be fine, and maybe they wouldn’t, but I’d much rather that was their choice.
There’s even a shorter term impact, too. Teenagers aren’t always the nicest of people, and differences and mockery are, sadly, part of the human condition. It’s been a long time since I was in high school (friendly wave to anyone I know reading this who knew me back then; I’ve changed in some ways but not at all in many others), but if you’d presented some of my contemporaries back then with photos of me in a nappy, the mockery would have been intense. I wouldn’t have handled it well at all then. Very few teenagers would.
I’d much rather my kids were able to find their own way online. Yes, they will make mistakes, and in this social age those mistakes are ones that could follow them for a lot longer than my own teenage indiscretions, such as they were. Why should I add to that?
But hang on… isn’t all this stuff on the public record anyway?
Yes, it is. If you’re so terribly inclined you can dig out public records on just about anybody, but that’s a very particular matter, and one that only covers off some basic metadata, rather than the more nuanced matters that people publish on social media sites. Equally, I’m not putting this up as some kind of challenge to people to dig out my private information. It’s out there if you really must — and, to be fair, there are mentions of my offspring online, again, if you really must, but precious little from the last six years or so — I’m simply stating my position on this issue.
How do you stop people taking and posting pictures of your kids online when they’re at social occasions? Eg children’s birthday party?
I don’t. Actually the social issue rarely comes up, because people don’t tend to tag photos of their kids with mine. Some parents I know are aware of my views, but most of them just figure that the kids don’t have Facebook accounts, so it’s not relevant.
Plus, you know, in order to stop such a thing, I’d be diving facefirst into the birthday candles, and those things are hot.
What does come up — and what most schools should have — are privacy policies relating to pictures of children. I’ve had a few odd looks when I’ve pointed out to people — most of whom don’t seem to have given the matter much thought, and that’s also their prerogative — that I don’t want my kids on the school Facebook page, although most people understand my point of view once it’s explained.