Eve just had a baby girl. Skylar has her dad’s nose and her mom’s mouth. At least, that’s what I hear. You see, nobody knows what she looks like. Eve refuses to post any pictures on Facebook.
We’ve left comments, again and again, asking to see little Skylar. “It’s like you haven’t even had a baby!” one comment read. “Pictures or it didn’t happen,” another said.
Being a new mother, of course, comes with the exhausting cycle of feedings, naps and diaper changes — not to mention the crying — so I can’t blame her for avoiding the pleas to sneak in a nap. But the thing is Eve still finds time to post about her opinions on pop culture and current events.
Eve decided well before Skylar arrived to keep Facebook a baby-picture-free zone. She was determined to keep her photographs, and any identifying information, off the grid. She wanted to give Skylar the choice on when she was ready to become a “digital citizen.”
So she instilled a blackout, part of a growing backlash to living so much of our lives online.
The urge to share our lives is a time-honored one. When friends and family are scattered across hundreds of miles, a Facebook post, Instagram picture or tweet takes a minimal effort to reach a maximum number of people. With just a phone and an app, we can conveniently share what’s going on in our lives right as it happens.
And that often means kids. Whether it’s first steps, “tummy time,” birthday parties, diaper changes, naps, even rashes and other ailments, those tiniest moments of life are usually immortalized on Facebook.
Baby pictures are so prevalent that non-parents often complain of the saturation. In fact, Chrome browser extension “Unbaby.me” made a splash with a promise to remove all baby pictures from the Web and social media, replacing them with other popular pictures. According to Slate, the filter won a Webby Award in 2013, proving plenty of people can’t deal with the deluge of baby mania.
Eve didn’t want to annoy friends on Facebook, though she’s snapped plenty of shots of her newborn. But beyond the baby, Eve felt “staying on top of this whole Facebook thing” was just something she didn’t have time for. “It’s just too much for us to deal with during this time, when we’re just trying to stay on top of this mom-and-dad thing,” she said.
Eve was so adamant about a blackout policy that she didn’t even post Skyler’s name on Facebook, merely announcing that her baby girl was safe and sound after the birth.
“We didn’t even put her name on the update. The only way it popped up online was because people I’d e-mailed privately kept commenting in the posts with it, which bothered me,” she said. “I ended up deleting those comments off my page. I just don’t want to see her name on the Internet. Or her face. Or anything about her, at least not until she’s ready.”
The couple’s strident efforts to keep Skylar’s privacy offended some people. Besides the constant clamor for pictures, Eve says she’s also gotten into debates with fellow moms and dads over it. “They take my policy as an indictment against their own constant posting of their kid’s pictures,” she said. “They think I’m being uptight and weird.”
The conflict underscores how complicated the discussion is for parents to navigate. Some think, “The kid is three-years-old — what’s the big deal?” But others who are more vigilant, such as Eve, go towards the opposite pole, and want to keep anything about their child off the Internet.
“You hear all the time about privacy stuff, and bullying, also information getting out there and losing control of it,” Eve said. “It seemed like too much to deal with at an early age.”
Her decision sheds light upon a growing debate over just when children should be allowed on the Internet. Some parents use piecemeal policies — yes to pictures on Flickr, only seen by family members; no to YouTube or Facebook, due to the complicated security settings. Others avoid posting names or locations.
There’s even the growing number of social sites for families, such as “Family Leaf,” but getting the kids to sign up isn’t so easy. “For better or worse, most people I know are on Facebook,” Eve said.
The patchwork of comfort levels and policies on social sharing can lead to friction. My friend Anna told me about a semi-hostile message she once got from a fellow mom in her daughter’s preschool class. Anna had posted pictures of her daughter’s birthday party to Facebook, featuring plentiful group shots of kids eating pizza and cake and playing at the party venue. When a mom heard about the photos, she demanded Anna take down the images with her son in them. The tricky part? The little boy was in nearly every group shot.
Anna ended up digitally blurring out his face. “It was ridiculous,” she said. “Those images were restricted only to my family on Facebook, but she just wanted to be sure. I was pretty offended, though. Is she saying my family has potential sexual predators?”
Experts say that particular fear is overblown. “Research shows that there is virtually no risk of pedophiles coming to get kids because they found them online,” Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute, told the New York Times. Most predators are more likely to haunt chat rooms, looking for vulnerable young teens open to sexual experiences, according to Balkam.
But Eve isn’t thinking about predators with her baby picture blackout — she has bigger-picture issues like security in mind. For example, the answers to common security questions, such as “Where were you born?”, “What is your mother’s maiden name?” or “What is the name of your first pet?” can be easily found sometimes with some tenacious sleuthing on Google and Facebook, and a search on Wayback Machine.
With children making digital footprints at an earlier age — thanks in part to parents eager to immortalize their kid’s images and information in the cloud — the available bank of data for hackers and other unsavory types to scour will only grow.
“It’s going to be so much easier in the future to steal someone’s identity,” Eve believes. “There’s just so much more information scattered out there online.”
Eve also has vague worries about Facebook data mining and privacy, which is shared with a growing number of people. Facebook stores data on everything we do — from what we like to where we were to who we associate with. This vast repository of data can be easily mined by hackers, who develop increasingly sophisticated tools to exploit the social network’s vulnerabilities.
Last year, a team of Hong Kong-based security analysts wrote a script to mine Facebook’s Graph Search, a personalized database of public information. According to PC World, the script was able to drill down quickly through large volumes of data, unearthing valuable personal details that allowed them to hack into accounts, and create phishing scams to gain even further access to sensitive information.
The hack, according to the analysts, highlights the real vulnerability of Facebook: it’s not just what data we share, but how others use, comment and share it. Those variables are often out of our control. Even if our profiles is locked away from prying eyes, those of our friends, if open, can be looked at, giving hackers a more circuitous, but still effective, route to our personal information.
If a child’s information is already on the site — well before being old enough to have an account — it joins that giant pool of data, even before permissions can be granted, much less understood on how it’s used.
Facebook, of course, might be sharing data in ways we aren’t aware of. According to Fox Business, attorneys in California filed a lawsuit against Facebook, alleging the network scans private messages that include links to other websites to improve its marketing algorithms. If the messages contain a shared link and likes with advertisers, that data is also allegedly passed to them, which attorneys say violates FTC statutes that require sites to disclose exactly how information is being used.
Eve’s worries about Facebook, data and privacy rising don’t even begin to touch on emerging innovations, such facial recognition, which will be able to capture our images from photos online and then stored the data on massive servers to be used in ways that still aren’t fully realized.
But Eve has more immediate, garden-variety worries beyond security and privacy. “I just keep going back to that mom in who found her four-year-old girl’s photo on some Brazilian site with a ‘sexy’ rating,” she said. The incident in question turned out to be a prank, but for most mothers, it’s no laughing matter. “I just think of how casually I share and spread images I find on the Internet to things like Pinterest… what’s to stop some stranger doing that with my personal stuff, especially of my kids? And using it in a way that’s offensive or objectionable? It’s not like I have an army of lawyers at my disposal, or the time to scour the Internet and deal with what I find there.”
The idea of being a digital citizen is still a fairly nascent one, and Skylar will be part of the first generation to truly grapple with what it means to be connected from birth. The idea of that unnerves parents like Eve, who can remember a time before the omnipresence of Internet saturated our lives.
But Eve knows she can’t push back time or innovation, and she’ll have to guide her daughter not only to flourish and thrive in her life, but in her online one, as well. And as Skylar grows up and goes to school, she’ll learn her ABCs, the dangers online and the responsibilities of having a digital presence.
Everyone from the FBI to tech giants, such as Microsoft has Internet safety guidelines, which focus on educating children about proper, safe conduct. The advice is the digital equivalent of “Don’t talk to strangers,” and focuses on curbing kids from exploring of the Web and social media.
But when parents begin to post images of kids almost from birth, those children are thrust into becoming digital citizens early on, well before they can sign up for an e-mail account, join Facebook or even read.
“I just don’t think parents see beyond the pleasure of sharing their family stuff online,” Eve said. “I love sharing and recording Skylar’s first moments like everyone else. Everything little thing she does is wonderful to me, and I want to share that with all my friends and family.”
For Eve, though, being a parent means thinking ahead. “I’m trying to think farther ahead beyond my own pleasure, and I just think there’s a lot we don’t anticipate when we do anything on the Internet,” she added. “Now that my kid is involved, I just want to be vigilant that decisions I make now aren’t going to affect her adversely years down the line.”
In the end, her decision reflects her strong, thoughtful convictions on parenting and family values. “Skylar is adorable, but she’s not a cute prop to make my Facebook more interesting,” Eve said. “I’m raising her as my daughter, but I also remember that she’s going to be her own person one day, and being online will be a part of that. When she’s ready to be online, I want her to have as blank of a slate as possible so she can fill it up on her own terms. I don’t want her to get online and see that her whole life has been cataloged for everyone to see.”
After some thought and discussion, Eve decided to join Flickr and start a photo album for Skylar, accessible only by close friends and family. She picked Flickr because it was easy to upload pictures from their phones, and simple and straightforward to limit access. She likes having statistics on each picture, too.
Eve got some pushback from family that didn’t want to join another site, but she stayed firm. “If they really want to keep in touch with her growing up, they’ll join,” she said. “Some things are worth staying stubborn about.” ♦