As the new decade dawned, I sat at my computer for an entire day, attempting to make good on a promise to my child. "Attempt" is the right word, because it was surprisingly difficult to purge my social media of posts involving her. Even after five passes, Instagram mysteriously unearthed additional photos, trapping me in a seemingly unwinnable game of Whack-A-Mole. You can bring your child into the digital world, but it isn't so easy to take them out.
I had vowed that I would stop "sharenting"—disclosing information about my daughter on social media—and would delete posts dating back to her digital birth, which was a sonogram image on Facebook. After her physical birth, I used the same platform to feed the natural needs of any new parent: support, information, connection, and validation. It takes a village to raise a child, but my own village elders were thousands of miles away. In response to every social media post, though, were reassuring smoke signals rose from the distant horizon. We are here. We want more.
Behaviours that are rewarded are likely to be repeated, and so I gave them more. I posted photos at first, which were well received. When she got older, I shared our conversations too, and the praise turned lavish. She's hilarious! She should have her own TV show! Just as Pavlov's dogs learned to salivate in response to the dinner bell, I started visualising the positive feedback as soon as anything amusing emerged from her lips. I became stuck in a dopamine-seeking reward loop.
"I am not a product," she growled, betraying a sensitivity to being commodified that she did not acquire from any direct exposure to social media. She got it from me.
When the benefits come thick and fast and the costs are speculative or concealed in the shadows, it's difficult to stay aware that the architects of these cheap and easy pleasures may be bad actors. When services are free, you are the product. If that feels like a trade-off worth making for your dopamine hit, the cost-benefit analysis may shift when you fully appreciate the potential consequences of your decisions for other people. The piper must be paid, and for a long time, I used my child's information as currency.
Eventually, she too may pay, in a myriad of ways. "Sharenting" increases the likelihood of her identity being stolen, for example. Facebook, not renowned for its fidelity and trustworthiness, may renege on its promises not to misuse children's photos on parental accounts. Facebook's 'Scrapbook' feature, which organises an individual child's images into a dedicated album, certainly seems suspiciously convenient.
Perhaps freeing my daughter from overexposure would help free me from my own ensnarement.
Of course, privacy regulations like COPPA in the States and GDPR in Europe protect kids from companies that care little about their individualism, their humanity, and their long-term interests. None of these protections matter, though, if digital-age parents do not appreciate how they can compromise these same things through their own online activities.
The famous psychologist Erik Erikson outlined eight psychosocial stages in our lives. Each contains a particular crisis, a conflict between our own psychological needs and the needs of society. When children are 5 or 6, they enter the 'industry versus inferiority' stage. Their independence is growing, and they want to make their own decisions about what's right for them. Ideally, the child's family supports them in that effort. If they are discouraged or punished instead, a child may feel like they don't matter and possess no meaningful power. The resulting inferiority complex can last a lifetime and serve as a foundation stone in a developing personality.
Reading the dialogues I once posted on social media, I now cringe at how I carried on with impunity in the face of my daughter's protests. Age 5. Are you writing this down? Putting it on everyone's iPhones? Age 6. The entire time I've been talking about the chicken farm, you've been writing. What are you doing?
Like an addict, I started to cover my tracks, transcribe under the table, lie about what I was doing. But she was no fool. At best, she learned that my interests trumped hers. At worst, she felt gaslighted. At a secondary-school open day recently, she winced when the head referred to graduates as "finished products." "I am not a product," she growled, betraying a sensitivity to being commodified that she did not acquire from any direct exposure to social media. She got it from me.
A reckoning was needed. When she was 9, we spoke at length about parents and kids and social media. I brought as much curiosity and humility as I could to the table. She brought her truth. To my dismay, the picture was even worse than I'd thought. She related all the times she'd felt exposed, betrayed, and unable to determine her own boundaries. The incidents she described were numerous, spanning many years.
If they are discouraged or punished instead, a child may feel like they don't matter and possess no meaningful power. The resulting inferiority complex can last a lifetime and serve as a foundation stone in a developing personality.
Telling her how sorry I was, I asked what she would like me to do.
Her eyes lit up. Here was her mother, contrite, offering her something she should have always had. She seized it.
"I want you to take it all down," she said.
A dozen justifications leapt to mind, arguments based on convenience and memory, efficiency and fun, privacy settings and restricted lists of friends. So many parents have used this reasoning, deployed these defenses. The prospect of erasing the online archive felt like an assault on memory, like a severing of ties. It almost felt like blasphemy.
In that moment, I grasped just how expertly I had been played, how powerfully my narrative had been shaped and my behaviour nudged. This made changing my ways feel even more urgent. Perhaps freeing my daughter from overexposure would help free me from my own ensnarement.
"When is this going to end?" my daughter said, breaking a long silence.
She was referring to our conversation. When I replied, though, I meant something else.
"Now," I said. "It ends now."
WRITTEN BYElaine Kasket