GROWING UP, I NEVER had tan lines. Want proof? There's a color snapshot on display in my parents' home: a naked 2-year-old is shown from behind, climbing up a bathroom counter. For as long as I can remember, a framed 3x5-inch print has sat next to the sink where it was taken. My dad doesn't carry a copy in his wallet. My mom hasn't distributed it to family or friends. Up until now, unless you were invited into my childhood home, you never would've known this cute little portrait even existed.
Proud parents have been perfecting this genre for decades. While the intimate moments themselves remain largely unchanged, how we choose to share them—much like the tools for capturing them—has evolved dramatically since my parents first became parents in late 1979.
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Today, the default is, of course, Facebook. Although privacy settings allow us to control which circle(s) of friends has access to parts of our profiles, many people either don't understand how to use them or prefer not to. Plus, like record labels and print publishers, parents are discovering that once content becomes digital, it can be easily copied and redistributed willy-nilly (hello, grandparents!). The result: photos of kids in compromising, colorful circumstances, and status updates recounting even more compromising, colorful circumstances, intended for a select few, are now spread out over the Web for everyone.
Just spend five minutes on the blog "STFU, Parents," which collects submissions of Facebook status updates and photos just to mock them ("STFU" stands for "shut the f— up") and you'll start to rethink what you should and shouldn't share about your children and parenting.
I WOULD NEVER TELL ANYONE how to raise their kids. But I've decided to draw a line in the sand with mine. When it comes to my son, who is 3 months old, I am doing away with privacy settings altogether—by abstaining. That means my wife and I won't be posting photos or discussing him online publicly (more on that later). Like a kid born into a vegetarian or Amish family, that is just the way it will be.
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This hasn't been easy. I'm no Luddite. I fit the profile of what Nielsen recently defined as "Generation C," adults between 18 and 34 who are deeply invested in digital life (the "C" stands for "connected"). I joined Friendster in 2002. Myspace in 2003. Flickr in 2004. Facebook in 2005. I've been tweeting almost daily since 2007. I've checked into Foursquare. Uploaded to YouTube. Updated my Path. And I still post regularly to Instagram, albeit privately.
But I am an early adopter by choice, not obligation. It's not that I want my son to remain hidden from the world. I just want him to inherit a decision instead of a list of passwords and default settings. If he takes part in social media, he'll eventually do so on his own terms, not mine. (At what age? No idea. I'm new at this!)
As more of Gen-C begins having kids, I suspect they'll agree. In the last decade, we've watched parents embrace social media, often too much. I call it "oversharenting": the tendency for parents to share a lot of information and photos of their kids online. Sure, there's a big difference between announcing your baby's first crawl and details of your dirty-diaper duty (or worse). But it's a slippery slope.
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In extreme cases, parents wind up jockeying for attention or Facebook "likes" a la 1990s TV programs like "America's Funniest Home Videos" or "Kids Say the Darndest Things." A YouTube video of a loopy 7-year-old after a trip to the dentist has been viewed 110 million times. His parents now run a website that sells $15 T-shirts featuring the kid. I don't blame those parents for capitalizing on the kid's Internet celebrity. But I'd rather take out loans than push for my son to out-cutesy the rest of the world.
"It is dangerous to think of life as a constant competition on 'Hot or Not,'" said Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatry professor at Stanford and author of "Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality." "But that is the message that much of our cyber experience sends us. Directing Internet traffic to our picture, website or posting should not be the goal."
Of course, sharing simple anecdotes and photos is not inherently a bad thing. There's a clear upside for new parents, especially. "Motherhood can be very isolating," said Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of the forthcoming book "The Social Machine." "When the babies are really young, you run out of things to do. Sitting there with a camera just gives you something to do. But to what extent is the person posting photos getting real companionship?"
I'M LESS CONCERNED WITH WHY
parents use social media or what they may get from of it, than how they're using it and how this choice might affect kids, especially as we've watched Facebook grow from a novelty to multibillion-dollar stalwart.
Timeline, the social network's recent visual rework, displays everything you post, say or do—marriages, divorces, children, friendships, vacations—on the site, in sequential order. The presumption is that, from now on, all children should have their lives documented online.
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Two decades ago, parents began registering domains named for their kids. Today, they register Facebook profiles for their unborn children, and even write status updates in first person. Similarly, parents set up Twitter accounts for their infants, and send tweets on their baby's behalf. Messages I've seen range from the banal ("Ate. Slept. Pooped.") to the more self-conscious: "Thanks to social media my day wearing a bear suit will live on to inspire future generations...and embarrass me as a teenager."
Again, there's a difference between discussing and posting images of your child, and hijacking his or her identity online. Either way, it's difficult to say what the consequences of oversharenting might be. In her 2008 article "Why Youth Social Network Sites," Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft, discussed how creating social media profiles bolsters a teenager's sense of identity. However, it's somewhat unclear what happens when an adolescent inherits a digital legacy—told through photos, anecdotes or even those faux-narratives—from his or her parents.
"More than ever, a 'digital legacy' is a very difficult thing to shed," Mr. Aboujaoude said, "and the 'reinvention' can turn out to be an exercise in wishful thinking."
"We're a culture that's used to a lot of things being ephemeral," said Ms. Donath. "To a large extent that is now disappearing."
In other words, the more of our lives we put online from the beginning, the more there is to contend with later on. On the other hand, my son has been born into a world that subscribes to online existence as the ultimate decider of truth. We say things like "Pics or it didn't happen." We get creeped out by people who are un-Googleable (I mean, right?). As MIT professor Sherry Turkle put it, "I share, therefore I am."
I'M TORN BETWEEN wanting to offer my son a tabula rasa, and tapping the efficient, frictionless nature of digital tools to share him with our family and friends. My wife and I live hundreds of miles from our immediate family and some of our closest friends.
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By lowering the supply of him online, we've actually increased the demand. It's been only three months, but my wife and I have received emails, text messages, phone calls and Facebook messages all hounding us for images of our son. Initially, we sent out one email with one photo taken the day he was born. Then, we set up a Picasa folder and invited only close family and a few friends, but it doesn't rally the same excitement or immediacy of an Instagram upload.
Our current networks are already inundated. It doesn't seem practical to boot the people I wouldn't feel comfortable sharing a naked-baby-climbing-the-counter photo with, for instance. Playing with Facebook's settings to find the right nuance seems like more trouble than it's worth.
What then? I have no idea. But I want to find out. I'm starting to explore every app, website and service I can that will allow me to balance both goals: preserving my son's blank slate, and our desire to share him with our friends and family. So far, I'm intrigued by Snapchat, an iPhone app that auto-deletes photos within 10 seconds of their being posted. On Google+, you can host a private "Hangout" or live chat with up to nine devices. There's Socialcam, an app for sharing and emailing videos. I'm not expecting to find a perfect platform. And I'm pretty sure I know how to avoid oversharenting. But there's got to be a happy medium.