My entire childhood is documented in the space of three photo albums. Two photos stand out in my memory: one, infant-me having my diaper changed from a rather compromising camera angle; the other, 2-year-old me seated triumphantly on a potty chair. I remember them because my parents teased that they would show them to any prospective suitors. Even though I knew they were joking, the possibility that those pictures would ever be viewed outside our family horrified me as an adolescent. The written record of my childhood is fairly small, too—a baby book with notes about my weight gain and first words, a collection of birthday cards and letters from family. How different this is from the record many parents are making of their children's early years now.
The internet and social media open up new possibilities for us to record and share the lives of our families on a much broader scale than ever before. Because of this, parents of young children must think of themselves differently than in the past. Photos like the ones my parents lightheartedly joked about revealing are now revealed routinely to our virtual communities. The off-the-cuff comment my mother may have made to her neighbor about my 2-year-old sassiness is now made by parents to hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of virtual relationships. How many parents realize that they are the custodians of their children's virtual identity until they are old enough to manage it on their own?
Most discussions of children and online protocol center on privacy settings and password safety for school-age children, but my concern starts earlier. Are we parents protecting and preserving the future privacy wishes and best interests of our small children in our own online posting choices?
Every day parents use social media and the blogosphere to offer up photos and posts chronicling all manner of child misbehavior, parental frustrations, and mishaps involving bodily fluids. I think these posts are made by well-meaning parents, unaware that they are creating an online identity for their children. But with every post, we construct a digital history of our child's life—a virtual scrapbook for public viewing—and we might want to think harder about the trail we are leaving behind. Do our comments and photos preserve our child's dignity or gratify our own adult sense of comedy? Do we post our thoughts to satisfy a need to vent? Do we miss the truth that our families need our discretion far more than our blog followers need our authenticity?
There is a reason we don't vent about or post potentially embarrassing pictures of our spouse or our mother-in-law: the real possibility that they will see what we have posted. No such danger exists with a young child . . . or does it? Cyberspace feels fleeting and forgiving, but it is neither. Consider that your toddlers will likely one day see the online identity you have created for them. And so may their middle school peers, their prom date, their college admissions board, and their future employers. But far more important than what the outside world will think of this digital trail is what your child will think of it.
Imagine Them Older
Parents, before you post about your small children, imagine a 13-year-old version of them reading over your shoulder. Your child bears the image of God just as you do. Does what you communicate honor them as equal image-bearers? Does it provide short-term gratification for you or honor long-term relationship with them? Does it potentially expose them to ridicule or label them? Does it record a negative sentiment that an adult would recognize as fleeting but an adolescent might not?
I am sure my mother had days when she wanted to give toddler-me to gypsies, but no permanent record of these moments existed for adolescent-me to find. A few of those stories do survive in oral form, but they are retold with laughter, face-to-face, where tone and facial expression give them context. If my mother vented to my dad that I was sneaky or sassy, I never saw or heard those labels. And that's a good thing, because parents may experience moments (or seasons) of deep frustration toward our children, but we would never want them to think that our love for them was ever in question.
In school my children were taught a memory tool to help them make wise choices when speaking, writing, or posting:
T-H-I-N-K: Is what I have to say True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, or Kind?
As stewards of their stories, we parents need that memory tool as well. Maintaining trust in the parent-child relationship should outweigh any other motive for posting. Think before you post. By all means, have a safe and appropriate place to vent and “be real” about parenting—just recognize that place is probably not the internet. Let everything you share with those outside your home strengthen the bond of trust you have within it. Tell your story without compromising theirs. Execute well the custodial duty of managing your child's online identity until its precious owner is ready to assume the job.
” . . . whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8