An old friend asked me recently why I never put my son’s face online. “Can you explain the not showing pics of babies thing to me?” she asked. “Everyone our age seems to obscure their baby’s face with emojis. I feel as if I’ve missed a key essay on the morality of baby pic social media publication.”
I don’t do the emoji thing – in fact I’ve even stopped showing the back of his head, or any aspect of his home life, really – but I know what she means. A few years ago, sharenting, as it’s been called, felt like the norm among my social circle. These days I see far fewer babies’ faces on social media. Concerns about online privacy and safeguarding, as well as facial recognition and the commercial use of personal data, are far more prevalent than they were in the early days of Facebook. In fact, you could say that whether or not you share photos has become another parental identity marker, up there with breastfeeding, cloth nappies and baby-led weaning as evidence that you’re doing things “the right way”, not like “those other parents”.
I have my own reasons for not publishing photos of my child, relating to my job as a female writer with a modest public profile, so I’m not sure how relevant my views on it are to other parents. If I’m honest, I have always felt that there was something dystopian about putting a child’s life online without their consent. In fact, one of the pieces that got me this job was a student newspaper column I wrote back in 2011, which envisaged every significant moment of a child’s life from conception to grave mediated through the spectacle of social media.
This didn’t stop me hypocritically wanting to share photographs of myself with friends’ babies, however, and once I became a mother the temptation to show him off has been strong. So I understand both sides of the argument, and also recognise that these decisions are often in flux. Many parents, for instance, might stop sharing once their bald little infants start to look more like identifiable people. Others, having learned about online safeguarding, have gone back and deleted photos, or won’t post anything that could be used nefariously by paedophiles. Lots of parents lock down their social media accounts, keeping their small followings to people that they know in real life, and regularly pruning their friend lists.
When I asked people to share their views, the parents who were most cautious were those who, like me, have jobs that might render their children more vulnerable to being recognised: criminal barristers, NHS staff working in mental health, anyone with a public profile. “Our lives aren’t less because of it,” one mum says. “I work in HR and I like my life private, and when she’s older I can tell her I kept her life private until she has her own social media if she chooses.” Another, who has worked on online safety in schools, is concerned about identity theft. “It terrifies me how many people will share on social media their child’s name and date of birth and then use the latter as a password for their bank account. Doctors just ask for name and DOB for security, schools and nurseries often use middle names as passwords for collection … A lifetime of being told not to share personal information with strangers, and I could tell you the full names, birthdays, places of birth and schools of 10 people I know on social media but not in real life.”
As with many aspects of parenthood, I think the question of online sharing also boils down to: just how anxious are you? One mother, who loves seeing and sharing cute baby photos, says she has what she calls a “naturally high fear threshold”, so just as she defiantly walks alone at night, she feels that the joy and community of sharing photographs with other parents outweighs the risks. “I feel that so much of being a parent is marred by fear and I think that this is also leading children to grow up in an unhealthily fearful environment,” another mother tells me. Parenting can be isolating, especially when you live away from family, and many of the parents who got in touch to say they happily share photos of their children do so for that reason. “They are a part of you, and it’s difficult to share your life without them in it,” says a friend, who before having her son had been adamant she wouldn’t share pictures of him but now does. “He’s most of my social life at the moment and it’s an easy way to feel connected to this network of people who love him that doesn’t involve me writing hundreds of individual messages,” says another. Others tell me that sharing their experience of pregnancy loss helped them get through it, and sharing the positive outcome of that awful time – a much-wanted baby – has been a continuation of that openness.
Even if you don’t want your child’s face online, negotiating with grandparents and other relatives can be tricky. Perhaps surprisingly, the older generation often seem less fazed about online security than their offspring, with grandparents desperate to show pictures on Facebook and some even going against the wishes of the parents. Discussing these boundaries can be fraught at times, and it often seems to be women who feel the most pressure to share. This makes sense, considering research has found that women are frequently absent from family photographs because it is they who “manage the family heritage, who take the photos, classify them, comment on them and share them”.
A primary school teacher who contacted me said that every year, she hears children complaining about the amount their parents share about them online. For me, and many other parents, it comes down to consent. I’d like my son to negotiate his digital footprint on his terms, but I understand and respect that other parents feel differently, and also wonder if the children without any digital footprint might wonder why, or feel left out. Ultimately, whatever we decide, it’s worth remembering that one day, we might have to sit down with our children and explain our reasoning.
We’ve switched to a duvet and a quilt, and are thankfully getting better sleep as a result. I was bowled over by the sheer intricacy, imagination and skill that has gone into the bedding created by Rebecca Monserat and Alice RubyRoss, whose small sustainable British business, Forivor, aims to foster in children an early love of nature. These heirloom products are like living storybooks, and I actually gasped when opening the parcel. I’m a thrifty shopper, but the beauty of the design to my mind justifies the price, and they make lovely gifts.
Not all our sleep strategies have proved effective. The bairn loves to dance, and you’d think tiring him out would mean an early bedtime, but the other night he danced to 15 Beatles No 1 singles in a row and was wide awake as ever.