Parents love to talk about their kids, and they love to talk about their kids on the Internet. On social networks, moms and dads post the obligatory first-day-of-school photos, brag about “awesome” report cards, share silly stories and tend to complain about, well, almost everything their children do.
But some parents are taking the opposite approach. They keep everything about their children - the good, the bad, and the ugly - offline. Amid concerns about cyberbullying, cyberstalking, data collection and public scrutiny, they’re worried about safety, privacy, and believe it’s wrong to give their children an online presence before they’re old enough to decide if they even want one.
Patchen Barss, a technology writer who embraces social media for his personal and professional life, jokes that he’ll never teach his toddler son about the Internet. The ruse won’t last forever, of course. But for now, Barss and his wife are keeping details about their 15-month-old son off the Web.
“We agreed when our boy was born that we were going to pre-emptively respect his right of privacy,” said Barss, 42, of Toronto. “When you put pictures online, you immediately lose control over who sees them and what they’re used for.
“You just never know how something you see as a benign, wonderful picture is going to be perceived very differently out there, whether it’s a creep who’s turned on by it or a marketer who decides this is a great image to sell my product,” he said.
Barss gets pressure for more baby pictures, mostly from his parents, and simply emails them directly. He stands apart from the moms and dads in his circle who are sharing everything online.
“We are somewhat anomalous in our blanket ban on it,” Barss said.
So, too, is Stacey Ross, who owns the San Diego Bargain Mama blog. She refrains from posting photos that show the faces of her 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, or things that could identify them, like their names or the name of their school. While she may share anecdotes about her kids, she won't do real-time, location-based updates.
“It’s unheard of, especially in the mom blogging business,” said Ross, 45, of Carlsbad, Calif.
She worries about safety, noting that she knew of a woman who was robbed after saying online that she was away from home.
“There are so many things that go viral, you could have one person who’s mentally unstable who you thought was a friend of a friend and a picture can be taken the wrong way,” she said. “There’s a vulnerability.”
In this digital age, when a father recently drew online scorn after posting a photo of his toddler daughter with a sign around her neck saying that he had to clean up her poop in the shower, and another dad wrote about which of his children was his favorite, with photos, and another posted a video of him shooting up his daughter’s laptop, do these non-sharing parents have the right idea?
As posting about your children is becoming a social norm, American University communications professor Kathryn Montgomery says parents need to be cautious before they share, and ask: Is this appropriate? Will it harm my daughter? Will it embarrass my son? Each family should determine what’s out of bounds to share with the world.
“Sometimes we have to stop and think, ‘Is there such a thing as too much sharing?’” said Montgomery, who fought for passage of the 1998 federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act that limits online data collection on kids under 13 without parental permission.
“You want to put a picture of a new baby, that’s fine, but just be very aware that when you put something online, it can go anywhere and it’s not easy to take down,” she said. “You want to respect your child’s privacy and depending on the age, you can ask children what they want you to share with friends and family.”
The future is a concern for Laurie Gray, a novelist in Fort Wayne, Ind., who also teachers criminal justice classes. She keeps word of her 11-year-old daughter’s achievements off the Web.
A former criminal prosecutor who’s married to a lawyer who does criminal defense work, Gray says that even if they weren’t lawyers, they’d still want to shield their daughter.
“She’s still a child under our protection, and when she’s old enough to make her own decisions, to have her own connections (online), then she’ll have a clean slate to start from,” said Gray, who uses social media professionally and calls it a “two-edged sword.”
“I want to stay away from the edge that can cut us, and an edge that is a useful tool for professional marketing - that’s the edge I want to use,” said Gray, 48.
Though they may seem unusual among their peers, the non-sharing parents aren’t necessarily outcasts, Montgomery says.
“More and more people are kind of re-examining their relationship to social networks,” she said. “Even young teenagers are saying it, partly because it becomes so habitual. People are saying, ‘Wait, do I need to do it this much?’”
“You can get caught up in this wave,” Montgomery said. “Each family, each parent has to stop and think, ‘Do I want to do this just because everybody else is? Is this the best thing for my family?”
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