The digital world has made the labyrinthine task of parenting even more difficult to navigate. From the minute your child is born, friends and family are itching to receive snaps of the new arrival's cute face. It is at this moment that you need to make what has become a major decision in every parent's life: how public do you want photos of your child to be?
Let’s review the case of Gavin Thomas. You might not know the name, but it’s more than likely you’ll have seen his face. It’s all over many, many memes circulating the internet, and has been since he was two and a half. In fact, that visage is so famous that Thomas (the family uses a fake name to protect his identity), now eight, is one of the most well-known American “celebrities” in China. The country even produces and sells merchandise with his legendary grimace on it – something the family wasn’t aware of at first.
Another case worth mentioning unfolded more recently, when a Kuwaiti influencer live-vlogged her son's reaction to finding out his grandmother had died. Unsurprisingly, this one was widely unpopular. You have to wonder, though, are we not giving this issue enough thought in the first place? While achieving Thomas's level of fame or documenting super-personal moments are both relatively rare, the way these shared images of our kids are used, and how they'll feel about it in the future, is a real concern.
"The best way to frame this problem is to think about the humble family album, which is often wheeled out at family gatherings," says Dr Catherine Frogley, a clinical psychologist at Dubai's mental health clinic The LightHouse Arabia. "Most pictures will provide nostalgic enjoyment and laughter, and trigger memories. Some are embarrassing for certain people, and they may wish that these pictures did not appear at such events.
“We can all relate to this. In the modern day, these family albums, the good and the bad, now exist online, and children are unable to choose which pictures come out, when and with whom. And herein lies the potential problem. When we post a picture of our children on social media, we are making a decision on their behalf to share a private moment before they are able to consent. Although this seems innocent now, it may have implications for them later in life.”
The pros and cons of posting online
That's one of the reasons why Rabia Zaman, a stay-at-home mum-of-one from Dubai, decided not to share any photos of her child online. "By posting, I feel we are taking away a choice that is my daughter's to make," she says. "Whether your accounts are set to private or not, putting any image online means you lose ownership, meaning you don't know where the image can end up, and that makes my husband and I very uncomfortable."
You also need to think about how a post could impact your child's own self-perception. The engagement these images garner (how many likes, comments or number of followers they attract) could shape the way in which children view themselves, and you, in the future. Let's not forget how unrealistic life on social media can appear; this distorted reality can leave children feeling inadequate or the subject of envy, leading to lower levels of self-esteem and greater anxiety, Frogley adds. "Remember yourself at 13. Now imagine your children as 13 year olds whose social media accounts already document their life, potentially from birth."
As long as you think carefully about what you're posting, however, there are some upsides to sharing our memories online. For one thing, it provides a platform for parents to digitally document special moments, and allows them to connect more easily and quickly with their network of friends and family, which could have positive psychological effects, says Frogley.
Importantly, this culture of (honest) sharing also adds to the amount of advice, information and stories we can access. “There’s a new wave of mummy bloggers and influencers who aim to document a more realistic account of parenting. This can generate a community based on shared experiences that may not otherwise be expressed,” Frogley explains. “This may go some way to relieve some of the tensions and pressures associated with parenting in the modern world. Furthermore, those with children who are struggling with particular difficulties or health concerns can find an enormous amount of strength and support from online forums and certain social media accounts.”
Why some parents are thinking twice
We reached out to a number of parenting bloggers for this feature, but, interestingly, many refused to comment, saying the issue was "too contentious". Sadaf Khan, a former marketeer and mum of two boys from Dubai, was happy to talk, despite the fact that she receives a lot of negative feedback about her online presence. "Initially, posting photos of my children on social media wasn't something that I thought needed a lot of consideration," she says. "I only had close friends and family on my social media account and I felt comfortable sharing.
“But since I have actively started blogging, things are different. Too many people with different kinds of opinions follow you, and while you can handle these opinions about yourself, you don’t really want people you don’t know to have an opinion about your children. So now, yes, I think twice before posting.”
Khan says the biggest advantage of posting online is that you don't have to send the same set of photos to dozens of people individually. "They can leave their comments and you can reply to them in the same thread. The photos are then saved up as a beautiful memory on your online account," she says.
The biggest downside is the judgment she receives. "You post a photo of your child on the beach and, five minutes later, you'll get a call from a distant aunt saying I shouldn't post cute photos of my kids. Why? The answer usually is: 'It is bad.' What 'bad' entails, nobody knows," she says.
Zaman also admits she's faced challenges with her decision to keep her daughter off social media. "Not really from other mums, but more so from the dance, music and sensory classes we attend where sometimes they don't ask, just post images of her," she says. "I also felt pressured by a nursery to sign a consent form allowing them to use images on social media and for marketing purposes.
My feelings on this are that my child is not a product for sale, and will not be used to help a business make money.”
Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay, and the debate about how we share our lives online is only going to get more complex. It's important to remember that these are deeply personal choices. "Posting pictures of your children online is not fundamentally, ethically wrong and therefore does not represent an ethical dilemma," says Frogley.
Whatever you choose to do is fine, she adds. "But, it should not be done without considering potential downsides, be they in the present or future." Posting a picture needs to be done while keeping the child's best interests in mind.
Zaman, who's pregnant with her second child, admits she's found it incredibly hard to decide what's right for her daughter in a world that's so heavily digitised. "We can never know how it will be to grow up in a world that's so connected. I didn't have a mobile phone until I was 18 and hope to enforce the same rules for my kids," she says. "On the other hand, I don't want to deny her access or demonise social media. When she is old enough, it's OK in healthy doses, and if she decides to become a blogger or influencer and share her life on social media, that's her choice."
Choice is what the issue boils down. And, as with all decisions parents need to make from the minute their child is born, it's based on what's right for your family – and no one else's. Just make sure you get those privacy settings right first.