Did you know that in France, parents can go to jail for sharing their children’s pictures on social media? Well, the cops won’t come calling at their doors the moment they hit that ‘post’ button, but months or years down the line, they can be taken to court by their own children for sharing their pictures without consent. If that happens, parents may have to cough up fines of up to €45,000 or even be sentenced to a jail term. Yeah, that’s how serious the French are about privacy laws.
I wish something like this was applicable in India, and Blair Koenig certainly wishes there was a corresponding rule in the US. Koenig, a well-known American blogger, has been fighting a long and lonely battle against over-sharing parents for years now, without any discernible change in the culture of parents who think nothing of sharing their kids’ photos in the most awkward moments or pictures of placenta smoothies. (Made of actual human placenta. Often their own).
I started thinking about all this recently when, on a lazy Sunday, I was taking pictures of my nine-year-old and she said, rolling her eyes exactly like the American video bloggers she adores, “Please tell me you’re not putting that on Instagram.”
That gave me pause. Like most parents, I had never thought twice about posting her pictures on Facebook, which became a habit when she was a baby. My friends and family would love to see these pictures, I told myself.
Thereafter, it also became a way to record her growing up. A picture every birthday, one for the first day of the school year, one during Diwali or Durga Puja. In these photos, the chubby-cheeked girl could be seen shooting up, becoming lankier, losing baby fat, being gap-toothed, graduating from ‘frocks chosen by mom’ to ‘I live my life in shorts and tees.’ The hair longer, the eyes more aware.
But that Sunday, I realised that even as I mourn her growing up and long to hold on to these last remaining years of real childhood, she has become her own person, and is not going to take kindly to my efforts to pin her down on social media (maybe it’s also creeping self-consciousness as she approaches teenage).
Teenagers — and increasingly, pre-teens — don’t like anyone defining them. One of my friends, who has an almost 18-year-old, shares a ton of pictures of herself and her daughter on Facebook, but she says her daughter always insists on “approving” the pictures first.
It could be written off as vanity, but I feel it’s deeper than that. Teens these days are active on social media themselves — you can get Facebook and Instagram accounts at 13 — and they want to curate their own online identities. They certainly don’t want these identities to be defined by their parents (who as we know are super uncool). Plus, these images are going to live online forever, and who wants photos of themselves acting silly on a family holiday to be discovered by a future partner or employer?
Writer Kavitha Rao says her 16-year-old daughter does not let her post any of her photos online, and Rao says she completely understands. In her opinion, it was understandable for parents to share their kids’ pictures on Facebook earlier, when that was the easiest way to make sure friends and family — people who actually cared about these kids — got to be a part of their growing up. But now, with everybody on a dozen private WhatsApp groups, there is just no excuse anymore to splash your children’s photos on your Facebook wall for the world and its grandmother.
“Mom Facebook”, Rao says, is the worst. Most of the time, parents use their children’s photos as bait for comments like ‘Looking hot babe, you look like his/her sister not mom LOL’. I don’t want to say it’s only mothers who do this, but although fathers are guilty of the occasional oversharing too, unfortunately, the limited evidence on my Facebook and Instagram timelines suggests that moms are rather more frequently guilty.
It is a curious blend of narcissism, possessiveness and showing off — but also an attempt to capture something; the ephemerality of childhood and innocence?
One of my US-based friends, a writer too (she requested me not to name her in this piece, so I’ll call her Anita), says: “The kids are up on what happens on my FB page when it comes to posts about them, and they have opinions. Ironically, it turns out that my teenager is way more conservative when it comes to an online presence than I am. He and I were talking about something I posted a couple of years ago and I said I could control the privacy settings on FB and he said, ‘Mom, you know FB is like a sieve, and it leaks.’ I got schooled.”
Why do people (including me) share their kids’ photos and updates about their achievements — which could be actual prizes won and contests aced, or of the ‘My child said this… Isn’t she adorable and CLEVER!’ variety (guilty). It is, I believe, a curious blend of narcissism, possessiveness and showing off — but also an attempt to capture something; the ephemerality of childhood and innocence? Facebook is also where we create, shape and share the narratives of our lives, and for parents, children are a huge part of that narrative. “We as parents are also documenting our lives. Our kids are a huge, huge part of our lives, so there’s no choice but to include them in our posts. What we can do is be careful, try to make sure whatever we say about them doesn’t haunt them for the rest of their lives,” Anita told me.
It’s a good idea, once a child is old enough to have his or her own social media accounts, for parents to back off. You may monitor these accounts from time to time if you wish — though teens actively hate their parents snooping around on their Facebook and Instagram feeds; why do you think Snapchat is so popular? — but by and large, they must be left alone to figure out their own online personas. Pictures from the family holiday are ok, but for heaven’s sake stop recording their every movement and achievement. You are seriously embarrassing your teens, and although they may not be able to take you to court for oversharing, they honestly wish they could.