BY S.E. SMITH
It’s a sweet, endearing sort of picture: A toddler in underpants and bright yellow rain boots, raising her shirt to peer down at her protruding belly. She’s innocent and carefree, fascinated by her body and its workings. It’s exactly the kind of picture you can find in millions of family photo albums, but it was too much for Instagram, which deleted it for “nudity.” In fact, the company took down Courtney Adamo’s entire account, spanning four years of images, for “violating community standards.”
Nothing about this image, or others on her former account, was explicit. Her account documented the life of a young child growing up, and she posted the kinds of images that thousands of women blogging about parenting—known as mommy bloggers—are posting every day. Yet, on sites like Instagram and Facebook, women are constantly facing removal of breastfeeding photos and photos of their children because the powers that be deem them explicit or inappropriate.
Deletions, bans, and temporary suspensions over ordinary images of childhood are met with outrage in the parenting and feminist community, as well they should be. Social media sites often claim to be concerned about child predators and safety, but sexualizing young children by insisting that their photos are too sexy is a problem in and of itself. This approach stigmatizes the bodies of mothers and children, turning them into something volatile and frightening.
But there’s another issue with posting photographs of young children online that isn’t as widely discussed: The problem of consent, autonomy, and the future for those children. What has been a perennial problem for artists with children has become a larger social issue now that anyone can share intimate family moments online, and these moments can linger forever. Child privacy is a serious consideration that’s not often discussed in public.
What happens when those children grow up, and how will they feel about the dissemination of their photos across the web, especially in the case of children who became the center of controversies? Are these children going to be comfortable with the fact that personal images and writing about their childhood will be freely available online as they move into their teens and adulthood, there for anyone to find with the help of Google? Some mommy bloggers write anonymously and are highly selective about the photos they choose to use, masking the appearance of their children to protect their privacy, but the layers of Internet privacy are often easy to penetrate.
Maintaining family photos and memories of childhood in a journal can be a wonderful tool for mothers—and an amazing experience for adult children who want to look back on their young lives. Exchanging information about parenting can also be powerful for mothers who may feel at sea, and the Internet provides a fantastic way to connect with parents who come from a variety of backgrounds to talk about parenting issues. There’s a reason the dismissively-named “mommy blog” phenomenon has become so big, with some of the most profitable private blogs coming from parenting circles: Parents, especially mothers, want to connect.
But it may not be so great for children, as a glance at the experience of children of artists can suggest. The children of musicians, visual artists, authors, playwrights, and more often struggle with being thrust into the public eye, having some of their most vulnerable, upsetting, and intense life experiences presented to the public for consumption and parental profit. This violation of privacy and ethics typically occurs without consent, or without the ability to fully consent. Does a seven-year-old understand the implications of consenting to become the star of a blog? Certainly an infant cannot opt out of having every detail of her life charted on the Internet.
Even when the lives of children are covered in a thin veneer of fiction or anonymity, it can be very easy to dig beneath the surface and identify the subjects of blogs and other creative works. For children who grow up knowing that their parents are writing about them and sharing photographs, there is also, of course, the temptation to look—and whether you look at 12 or 22 or 32, it can be unsettling to find out what your parents thought about you at a given point in time. A post snapped off in frustration at a child who is misbehaving or struggling with illness or not mastering toilet training can become a source of torment to a teen or older adult encountering a parent’s harsh words—or having those words echoed on the schoolyard from the mouths of bullies.
Social media sites shouldn’t be censoring perfectly innocent, natural images of children growing up—but a larger conversation about privacy ethics for children online is necessary. This generation of children is a bit of a social experiment, as they are the ones growing up with every single detail of their lives carefully documented and presented online. Some are distributed on friends-only Facebook lists, much like photos passed around among friends and family in physical spaces, but what about those who are plastered across the front page of mommy blogs and social media accounts, where anyone can see them, and find them?
How is this generation of children going to feel as they reach adulthood and confront legacies of their past preserved in the amber of the Internet? As we know, the Internet doesn’t forget—and for some children, that might become a serious problem.
s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California. Ou focuses on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, and has a special interest in rural subjects.