When I announced on social media that I had finally—after nine laborious months—delivered my son, I waited a full two weeks to share the news. Of course my close friends and family knew, but I was too busy physically recovering from the human miracle that is childbirth. I was marveling at my son’s features and trying to decide if he looked like his father or had my eyes; and honestly trying to steal any moment to sleep, shower and feel any semblance of a human being.
I wasn’t ready to share it with “the world,” or really my larger community of friends and family on the internet. I was still reveling in the reality of motherhood and not yet ready to make it Instagram official. And when I finally did, I only posted a photo of my son’s feet, wrapped in a blue and white Aden and Anais muslin blanket.
Before he entered the world, I had nine months to think about what it means to live in this digital-saturated world. I thought about the moment I first joined social media during sophomore year at the University of Maryland in College Park, and how I used to share what my line sisters and I did every single weekend through Facebook photo albums. (They’re now largely hidden.)
And I thought about how Facebook endured several data breeches and how companies like the now-defunct British company, Cambridge Analytica, used Facebook to mine our data points (who we are, where we live, what we like and what we buy) and later sell them to politicians, corporations and whoever else to manipulate our thinking and preferences.
Facebook isn’t the only media giant that’s taking advantage. Back in September it was announced that Google had to pay a record $170 million fine for illegally collecting children’s data from YouTube without parental consent.
I looked at my friends, family and people I admire give away so much of their children’s information—their birthdays, where they go to school, when they’re out of town, who their best friends are and what their favorite toys are. Complete strangers know so much about our children, including what they’re wearing each day (if you share an #OOTD), what they want for Christmas and what they hate eating, and it’s not because of some hack. It’s because we volunteer the information onto platforms where we never read the fine print.
And my circle is not alone. A November 2018 report titled, “Who Knows What About Me?” found that by the time a child is 18, parents would’ve shared 70,000 posts about their children on the internet via social media, gaming apps, smart speakers and wi-fi enabled toys.
Now, I’m the last mom to parent shame anyone, and that’s not my intention. If your child is older, you already know how nearly impossible it is to keep them and their likeness off of the internet. Even their schools require them to be digitally savvy and submit their homework via apps, or create YouTube videos as projects. (I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.)
But you don’t have to be an avid fan of the dystopian Netflix drama Black Mirror to understand the dangers in strangers knowing so much about our most vulnerable. I’ve heard real-life horror stories of friends who’d post the most adorable photos of their children only to find that another random person on the internet was pretending those photos were their own children; or even children’s photos ending up on the dark web for sexual deviants to find and consume.
If I wouldn’t tell a stranger my child’s most intimate details, such as where he goes to daycare, why would I be comfortable sharing it online?
With so much facial recognition technology available now, and with no clear path on what it means for our society’s future, we’re opting out for him.
But having a internet-“free” child does take work. Making sure your child and his or her preferences remain offline (so they won’t be susceptible to society’s deviants) requires constant work, but it’s not that hard. At the risk of sounding like a totally paranoid parent, it simply requires telling friends and family repeatedly (and nicely), “We don’t put his face on social media.”
Surprisingly, no one has ever asked why. They get it instantly. With so much facial recognition technology available now, and with no clear path on what it means for our society’s future, we’re opting out for him. It’s too late for us, but when he’s old enough, or whenever he’s curious, he can make the decision on his own to join the ranks of social media.
“Does that mean we can’t take pictures of your son?” No, on the contrary. Take photos of our cute little cinnamon bun, but also please be respectful and not share it on social media.
Now, I get it. It’s hard not to want to share the amazing milestones that your child reaches on a day to day basis. If you are into sharing your child on social media (no judgement, mom!), perhaps be mindful of what they’re wearing (does their uniform share where they go to school each day?) or items in the background that can inform strangers of their likes and preferences.
To get our fix, we instead text the photos to trusted family and friends using Apple’s Messages App. It’s reportedly one of the most secure ways to share your private data. Other apps that are pretty secure are Signal and Telegram.) No, it’s not a complete fool-proof way of keeping our child off the internet, but it does make it a bit harder to mine his data.
With the holidays coming up, we already have our son’s matching pajamas picked out so he can enjoy his first Thanksgiving. We’re excited to take tons of family photos with extended family while stuffing ourselves with Thanksgiving classics. And when we eventually post them online, a cute little emoji will hide his face, protecting him from the great unknown.
Joi-Marie McKenzie is a senior entertainment editor for ESSENCE. She’s also the author of her hilarious dating memoir, The Engagement Game.