The internet has been aflutter in recent days over the story of a blogger and her children. The woman in question has been writing about her children for years, since each was an infant. Now one of them, aged nine, has discovered the internet has all kinds of pictures of her and her sibling along with stories about their earliest days, right up to the present. When the daughter confronted her mother to take down all that material, the writer said she couldn’t do that and wouldn’t stop, seeing the sharing of these stories and photos as a vital form of self-expression, as well as an important source of income for the family.
A compromise was reached between mother and daughter, but the incident has revived a conversation that doesn’t surface very often: How many decisions are parents making for their young children that will impact the future of those children in various ways, and what privacy rights do children have when it comes to what their parents are posting online?
If you go on Facebook or Instagram at the end of August or early September you’ll be awash in photos parents have posted about their kids’ first day in whatever grade they’re entering. Christmas and birthdays are accompanied by photos and videos of kids opening presents or reacting to surprise gifts in some manner.
It all may seem innocuous, as if you’re just sharing these updates with friends and family. But doing so means adults are making decisions that will have long-lasting repercussions for those children without their consent or understanding. If if they’re not named or tagged on social platforms, the companies behind them are developing increasingly sophisticated facial recognition, powered by neural networks and artificial intelligence.
Think of a kid whose first picture is posted by a parent when they’re six months old. That picture is being scanned and indexed so that when the next picture is posted, the system recognizes it as the same individual. It continues tracking them so that, even if no name is ever used, it knows that the person in this picture is the same one from a picture posted three years ago because it has all the stages they’ve gone through in that time.
When the child is old enough to make their own decisions regarding what they do or don’t want shared in public it’s far too late. They’re out there, with a history that will track them throughout their lives, or at least the life of the platform and whatever partners it sells data to. It’s not just whatever embarrassing photos and videos they may post themselves, it’s everything mom and dad posted when they were younger that will show up when someone wants to find out more about them, whether that’s an advertiser, a potential love interest or a hiring manager doing his or her due diligence as part of the interviewing process.
Imagine what’s happening on social media right now. The writer of the movie Green Book took down his Twitter account when someone pulled up an anti-Muslim comment from 2015. Kevin Hart’s history of homophobic jokes on Twitter cost him his Oscar-hosting gig. A few jokes in poor taste were used against director Paul Feig to the point Disney fired him from Guardians of the Galaxy 3. And an old video of new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing in college, while not controversial at all, has been used against her by right-wing commentators to claim she’s not the intellectual heavyweight she’s held to be.
The last example is particularly ridiculous as she’s not engaged in anything inappropriate or shameful. It just shows a college kid having fun dancing. She’s not getting blackout drunk during Beach Week or anything, though even that doesn’t seem to disqualify someone from achieving a Supreme Court position. Nor is she shrugging her shoulders today and wondering why labels like “white supremacist” are such a big deal.
It’s one thing when the posts someone has made themselves come back to haunt them later in life, impacting their ability to get a job or other aspects of their life. Employers are increasingly using social media data mining to screen for potential problems in people being considered for open positions. That’s laudable when it comes to looking for histories of abusive behavior. The fear, though, is that decade-old posts are being seen as indicative of who the person is now, not simply who they were at the time.
Parents may think they’re not doing anything terrible by posting photos and videos of their precious darlings from the time they’re babies onward into young adulthood, but doing so means making choices that may come back to bite those kids as they get older. They’re going to have enough opportunities to embarass themselves and make their own ill-informed decisions on what to post and what not to, they really don’t need their parents making those calls for them before they can weigh in on the conversation. When they do, though, parents owe it to their kids to respect those opinions. Their child’s’ future is at stake in many real ways.