Amy Webb has written an important but frustrating post on Facebook privacy and kids on the Slate website. Writing about a friend who extensively Facebooks photos and stories about her daughter “Kate”, Webb worries that Kate’s parents have compromised their child’s future autonomy, particularly in light of emergent facial recognition technology that can build profiles based on photos:
The easiest way to opt-out is to not create that digital content in the first place, especially for kids. Kate’s parents haven’t just uploaded one or two photos of her: They’ve created a trove of data that will enable algorithms to learn about her over time. Any hopes Kate may have had for true anonymity ended with that ballet class YouTube channel.
Knowing what we do about how digital content and data are being cataloged, my husband and I made an important choice before our daughter was born. We decided that we would never post any photos or other personally identifying information about her online. Instead, we created a digital trust fund [of websites, email addresses and accounts].
When we think she’s mature enough (an important distinction from her being technically old enough), we’ll hand her an envelope with her master password inside. She’ll have the opportunity to start cashing in parts of her digital identity, and we’ll ensure that she’s making informed decisions about what’s appropriate to reveal about herself, and to whom.
It’s inevitable that our daughter will become a public figure, because we’re all public figures in this new digital age. I adore Kate’s parents, and they’re raising her to be an amazing young woman. But they’re essentially robbing her of a digital adulthood that’s free of bias and presupposition.
While parents need to be cautious about sharing their kids’ lives online — particularly if they want to have model digital discretion for their future teenagers — this post traps us in the all-or-nothing paradigm of life online. Yes, maybe it’s “easiest” to post nothing, but doing the easiest thing hardly prepares a parent for the difficult challenge of providing thoughtful advice and guidance to their kids in how to live in an online world.
Parents who invest a small amount of time in creating an intimate circle of Facebook friends not only protect their kids’ safety and privacy (find out how here), but also build the skills they need to be effective digital advisors and role models. Webb is right to raise questions about how facial recognition technologies may transcend whatever protections we set up for our kids…but the way to handle that is by advocating for effective privacy policies, and not by avoiding the difficult challenges of living and parenting in a world that is irrevocably digital.
And parenting in a digital world isn’t all about dealing with cyberbullies and online predators. There are incredible joys, insights and experiences to be had for parents who dive into the social world, rather than waiting for their future teens to drag them there. Parents who (carefully) share their kids’ lives online tap the power of Facebook and other social networks as avenues for getting support , and for sharing the joy of parenting. Most importantly, by engaging their kids in conversations about what and how to share online, from a young age — as we have, by asking our kids for permission each and every time we post a photo or story about them — parents can guide their kids in making thoughtful decisions about their online presence, while their kids are still young enough to be influenced.
Parenthood is such a central experience that there’s no way to cut it out of your online life without profoundly compromising your own ability to have authentic, meaningful connections online. And that’s not an experience you can do without if you want to understand and relate to kids you are raising in 2013.
For more on whether and how to share your kids’ lives online, see my series on Facebooking the Kids.