Do You Have the Right to Put Your Childrens’ Lives Online?

April 9th, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

I’m sometimes criticized for not blogging much about my children. Because of that, certain people assume the worst. Silence implies guilt, so it must be that I don’t care about my kids at all.

It is true that I don’t write about my children or my relationship with them very much at all. I sometimes mention them in passing, or I might share a very minor story about them, but that’s about it.

This isn’t some new development that happened after Erin and I separated. I haven’t written much about my kids for all the years I’ve been writing, including during all the years we lived in the same household.

My silence on this subject is deliberate.

Does this imply that I never see them? Does this mean things have gone terribly wrong since Erin and I separated? No, it just means I’m choosing not to write about my kids.

While I wholeheartedly agree that parenting is a valid topic for me to write about — I certainly consider it to fall within the scope of personal development — I choose to remain virtually silent on this particular topic.

To do an effective job of writing about parenting, I feel like I’d need to share some rather intimate stories about my kids to explain and illustrate the key points, and that isn’t a place I want to go. I might be able to write about parenting some other way, but it wouldn’t suit my normal writing style, so it would be pretty stunted writing. And it would likely induce people to fill in the gaps by guessing at how I discovered whatever parenting insights I shared.

I’m an adult. I’ve made a conscious choice to share so much of my life on the Internet. I use personal stories to illustrate key points and to help motivate and inspire people to grow, and I know that makes a difference. Personal stories humanize abstract ideas. But being so open has consequences. I can never escape what I’ve shared. For the rest of my life, I must live with this lack of privacy. I freely chose to do this though. No one pushed me or forced me into it. I can be okay with it because it was my decision. I’m responsible.

But do I have the right to make such a choice on behalf of my kids? I don’t think I have the right to do that on behalf of anyone other than myself.

Living in Public

To share a simple story about an adult friend who wouldn’t mind is no big deal. To share a story with no personally identifiable info is generally okay too. But to share a story about someone that could have consequences for them, and to make it personally identifiable and essentially permanent? I don’t feel I’m entitled to make that kind of call. To do so would be unfair.

If I ever feel inclined to share a story that involves someone else, and it could create consequences for them if I did so, I ask them directly. Would it be okay if I shared this in my blog? I think my readers would find value in it. Most of the time they’re fine with it. Sometimes they say yes but with reservations, like they may not want it to be personally identifiable.¬†Sometimes they say no. If they say no, I don’t share it.

With some people who are in my life frequently like Rachelle, we’ve cultivated a reasonable mutual understanding about what’s okay to share publicly and what isn’t. If I have doubts about a particular story, I’ll ask. Then I respect their choice. As a stage actress and a blogger herself, Rachelle is used to being in the public eye, so like me she’s fairly liberal about this sort of thing. Other people in my life are more private, and so you won’t see me sharing stories about them publicly.

For someone in my shoes, this is just common sense. Imagine what would happen if I started posting stories that people expected me to keep private. Pretty soon I wouldn’t have many friends. To maintain positive relationships, I have to be careful to protect the boundary between the public aspect of my life and other people’s desire for privacy. This is important because I want people to feel safe and comfortable around me. They need to be able to trust that I’m not going to turn intimate details of their lives into a public spectacle.

If you’ve been reading my content for a long time, you may think you know a lot about me, and you certainly do, but I hope you can accept that you don’t have the complete picture. If your only interaction with me is through the Internet, then you never will. Your overall impression of me will be unnaturally lopsided because some aspects of my life won’t receive any meaningful expression through this medium. That’s a consequence of expressing myself in this way. It may seem to almost have the intimacy of a face to face connection, and it’s nice that we can get closer to that ideal, but it’s not the same. Even though I’m very open about my life, there are gaping holes in what I choose to share publicly. This mainly has to do with respecting other people’s right to privacy.

The Dark Side of Openness

I understand the tendency for our minds to want to fill in gaps, but it would be nice if people wouldn’t automatically assume the worst and concoct crazy nonsense to fill in the gaps.

I’ve been sent links to blogs that gossip about my kids and my relationship with them, how terrible their lives must be since Erin and I separated, how they must be suffering, and so on. Some will even tack on a ludicrous psychoanalysis of the whole situation, building conjecture on top of falsehood.

It’s one thing for people to go after me like paparazzi on a princess. I can handle it. It’s another thing to trash talk someone’s children who are unable to choose their level of involvement. It’s pretty hard for someone to push my buttons, but when people behave like Internet pedophiles with respect to my kids, that’s the sort of thing that makes me want to go shotgun shopping.

Given what I’ve seen happen online already, can you blame me for not wanting to share intimate details of my kids’ lives online? It’s unfortunate that people do that sort of thing, but I have to deal with the reality that some people will take whatever info I share and try to use it in ways that could potentially hurt my kids. I think it’s the lesser of two evils to leave everyone in the dark. If I don’t provide the ammo, then the best they can do is guess and make stuff up, and they’re bad at guessing (mainly because they go for drama, and the truth isn’t particularly dramatic — it’s actually quite mundane). Most people who are involved with my kids will likely be able to dismiss these wild guesses as stupid and ridiculous, but that’s only true for those who actually know my kids well.

The Consequences for Children

These days our kids’ lives are more interconnected than ever, much more so than when I was their age. Sometimes the resulting peer pressure can be intense. As we’ve already seen, what happens on the Internet can even pressure someone to commit suicide.

My daughter will be entering middle school later this year. That’s an age where peer pressure can intensify quite a bit. Many kids now have cell phones at that age. The Internet is never far away.

How would you feel if your parents told tons of stories about you, using your life as a public example of their parenting successes and failures and experiments, on a popular website with millions of readers? And all that information is permanently available. Everyone you encounter throughout your entire life can easily find what your parents wrote about you. It just takes a few clicks today. Who knows how much more accessible it will be a decade or two from now? Your wristphone might serve it up in a nanosecond.

Anyone at your school, including the bullies, would be able to dig through your past like an open book. What if you never got to decide what you wanted or didn’t want to share? What if your parents felt it was fine to share intimate details about your developing years on the Internet, figuring it was their call to make? They may have the power to make that choice before you’re old enough to decide for yourself, but you’re forced to deal with the consequences.

I don’t believe it’s my place to make that kind of decision on my kids’ behalf. Children are not the property of their parents. As separate individuals, children¬†should be free to determine their own level of engagement with respect to what they share online and what they’d rather keep private. As youngsters, however, they aren’t old enough to understand the long-term consequences of their choices, so they aren’t prepared to make such a big decision just yet. It’s not the same thing as making a mistake offline where the consequences are usually minor and short-lived. This is a situation where the parents must decide what’s best for the long-term welfare of their kids.

With all the power kids have to share details online these days, I think many of them are setting themselves up for consequences they may not like. Will the university admissions officer like what s/he sees upon checking out your Facebook page? What could someone learn about you by using the Internet archive? I think it’s best to assume that the Internet has no delete button. Assume that everything you post online is public, permanent, and personally identifiable.

Being Yourself While Watching Out for Your Kids

Yes, my kids have an unusual father. I have to live my own life. Fortunately my family lives in a place where one person’s actions don’t reflect too much on the other family members. We’re all individuals, free to make our own choices. If one of us does something that the rest of the family doesn’t like, we don’t have to worry about dishonoring the House of Moag for seven generations.

There’s always some backwash, however, like when I posted my April Fools joke last week. Apparently some people who took it as a serious post complained to Erin about it. It happens now and then. For the most part, people recognize that we’re individuals free to make our own choices and that we don’t own or control each other.

Posting pics of your kids on a private family website or Facebook page that very few people can access is a different matter entirely. I have no issue with that sort of thing. But even so, what might Facebook later do with that data? It’s been said they may retain it indefinitely even if you delete your account. They could use it to create an advertising profile for your kids at the very least, so your kids may be subjected to more personalized advertising later in life, nudging them to buy more stuff they don’t need because the ads are more persuasive. Once the data gets saved, you don’t just have to consider today’s data mining tools. You also have to consider all the potential tools that have yet to be developed.

I believe that children should be respected as individuals. They should be afforded the freedom to decide how much privacy they desire in the areas where it could create meaningful consequences for them down the road. I don’t think that choice should be forced upon them. They’re too young and vulnerable to be able to understand the long-term consequences of such actions. Even as teenagers, they may not have the maturity to make well-considered decisions in this area yet.

Giving Kids a Choice

I’m not saying that the overall consequences to my kids’ lives would automatically be negative if I shared a lot more about them. Things could turn out very positively. They might appreciate being semi-famous. It could set them up for some good opportunities they may wish to pursue. But that isn’t my call. That has to be their call.

I don’t have any specific age in mind where my kids would be old enough to decide something like this for themselves. It depends on their maturity level. If my daughter reaches the point where she seems very responsible, and she’s good at understanding the potential consequences of sharing details of her life online, then that’s when I’d feel comfortable letting her decide, whether it happens at 17 or at 27 or some other age. Of course at age 27 she’s free to decide for herself anyway, but I think you’ll agree there’s no shortage of foolish 20-somethings. If at that point, she says she’d be happy for me to share some intimate stories about our lives that other parents might find helpful, I’d be fine with it. If she says she’d prefer it if I didn’t do that, then I’d respect her decision, and I wouldn’t share that info. I’d also want to be sure she was making her choice in a sound frame of mind and not deciding impulsively.

Again, I think that parenting is a perfectly valid topic to write about. I do have some insights I feel would be worth sharing. But the really good stuff is naturally the more intimate stuff. Gimme another decade or two, and we’ll see.

If you’re a parent with a different opinion on this, and you feel you should be free to post whatever you want about your children’s lives on the Internet, then I would at least ask you to consider if you’d have been okay if your parents did the same to you while you were growing up. Would you be okay if people could Google your name and easily find stories about how whiny you were as a kid, how you wet your pants, how you cheated on a test, how you got bullied on the playground, how you were in the slow learning group, how you had to play the potted plant in the school play, etc?

Maybe you’re okay with that sort of stuff being posted about your childhood and maybe you aren’t. But who should be the one to make this call — the parent or the child? Who will be held accountable for the consequences?

I love my kids very much, and as their father I want to see them happy, not just now but later in life as well. You may not fully understand what it’s like if you don’t have any little ones calling you “Daddy”, but I have a strong natural protective instinct towards them. I don’t want to see them hurt, especially by those who’d deliberately choose to try.

Raising kids is very challenging but also very rewarding. There’s no experience quite like holding a newborn baby in your arms within the first hour after birth, as his/her wide eyes look up at you and you smile with your whole face and say, “Who’s your Daddy?”

Then it hits you that from this point onward, your life will never be the same.

So that’s my parenting lesson. ;)


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