As I write this, one of my twin sons is making faces. He's showing signs of a comical streak already — or so our sleep-deprived parent brains have decided — and after eating often launches into a panoply of funny expressions, his favorite of which is a cross-eyed "blue steel." You really ought to see it, and I'd show you, except I've already hit my quota for pictures of my kids on social media this year. That quota is one.
When our twins were born this spring, my husband and I uploaded a single photo of them on Facebook and Instagram. We have no plans to post any more for the foreseeable future. Maybe there will be a family Christmas card.
It's not that we don't want to share pictures of our kids. We send photos via encrypted messaging, like iMessage and Signal, and we've set up an image database on a private server, handing out the link and password to any friends and family who ask. But those pictures will never be on Facebook or any other social media network, not even in a private group or chat.
We’ve made this choice for two big reasons. The first is what I jokingly call my libertarian paranoia, by which I mean an eminently reasonable concern for privacy in the age of mass surveillance and digital oversharing. (Readers familiar with my views on Elf on the Shelf will not be surprised to hear this.)
Facebook in particular has integrated facial recognition technology, which is increasingly of interest to law enforcement from the federal level on down to local police forces. I don't want Facebook, or any social network, tracking every new development of my children's faces, and I don't want photos of our lives pressed into service of training facial recognition AIs.
"People gave their consent to sharing their photos in a different internet ecosystem," Meredith Whittaker of the AI Now Institute explained to NBC News earlier this year. "Now they are being unwillingly or unknowingly cast in the training of systems that could potentially be used in oppressive ways against their communities." The only surefire way to avoid unknown misuse of pictures of my kids is to never share them in the first place. (I also share few photos of my own face these days, aside from headshots in work contexts.)
This attention to privacy also includes a more rudimentary safety concern: There are creeps on the internet. Especially in public formats like Instagram, I can never be sure who is looking at my photos. I can never be sure who is saving or manipulating my photos (seriously, deepfakes are crazy!) or parsing locational details to see where I travel or live. I am far from fixated on crime and security — my sons are too young for me to claim the free-range parent label, but that's where my instincts lie — yet it seems silly to tempt fate in pursuit of a few more likes.
Our second rationale is more personal than political: What if our sons don't want to be online?
Blogging has been around for a few decades now, and we are surely nearing publication of the first tell-all memoir by the offspring of an oversharing mommy blogger. Likewise, Facebook launched for Harvard students 15 years ago and opened to the public in 2006. That's enough time for children whose entire lives have been documented on social media to be entering their teen years.
Objections from kids whose childhoods were thus digitized are already beginning to register. Parenting blogger Christie Tate was widely — and, I think, rightly — lambasted this winter for her Washington Post article on refusing to take down years of public content about her 14-year-old daughter, who was distraught to learn photos and stories about her young life had been published without her consent. (Tate later did shutter her blog.) A Fast Company story in March from another 14-year-old gave a first-hand account of that distress:
[W]hen I turned 13, my mom gave me the green light and I joined Twitter and Facebook. The first place I went, of course, was my mom's profiles. That's when I realized that while this might have been the first time I was allowed on social media, it was far from the first time my photos and stories had appeared online. When I saw the pictures that she had been posting on Facebook for years, I felt utterly embarrassed, and deeply betrayed. […] I could understand why my mother would post these things; to our extended family and her friends they were cute, funny moments. But to me they were mortifying. [Sonia Bokhari via Fast Company]
The impulse of "sharenting," as The Atlantic has dubbed it, is indeed understandable. But that doesn't make it fair to its subjects. I'm deeply glad my childhood was not documented on social media by myself or others — kids haven't developed the judgment to decide what to share about themselves, and parents have no way of knowing what their children, once old enough to choose, will be comfortable with showing the world.
If our twins want to broadcast their younger years when they've grown old enough to make that decision, I'll willingly send them a treasure trove of pictures to post at will. But you won't see much of my kids on Facebook in the meantime, because their privacy isn't mine to give away.