Look At Life: Online Identity

25th August 2017

Privacy Policy

By Grace Fuller

a baby is born in Sydney, Australia. Her mother emails a photograph to the rest of the family, back home in New Delhi. Little Amala’s grandfather puts it on Facebook. Within 30 seconds his other daughter is on the phone from San Francisco: ‘Papa, what are you doing? Are you stupid? Take the picture down at once’.

Papa, who is not stupid, but is prone to obey his daughters simply because life’s easier that way, does indeed delete his proud ‘isn’t she lovely?’ post, although he is then immediately beleagured by contacts asking ‘what happened to your granddaughter?’.

He is half-laughing and half-regretful as he tells me this. His San Francisco daughter is convinced that a Facebook photograph of Amala, even if shared only with her grandfather’s friends half a world away, exposes the baby to the risk of kidnapping, child trafficking, abuse: ‘You’re turning her into public property, Papa; you’re making her unsafe.’ Now, in response to his daughter’s embargo, he shows pictures of his grandchildren only by passing his phone over to friends and family in the same room… which rather defeats the ‘small world’ feeling that social media is supposed to create, and leaves those of us on other continents feeling left out.

I can’t help thinking that Amala’s American aunt is over-reacting. There’s nothing to identify where the baby lives – and a good proportion of her grandfather’s friends probably don’t even know her surname. How can a picture or two – with carefully managed privacy settings – make her vulnerable? It’s a firm dictat, though. No sight of Amala or her brother online.

I’m loosely connected with an old colleague, Lorna [name changed to protect the guilty] who takes the opposite approach. Everything her nine-year-old does is lavishly catalogued and shared – from the chocolate-smeared face she wore as a toddler (why do people think that’s cute?) to her latest achievements as a tapdancer and budding gymnast.

And her tantrums.

I suppose you could argue that at least Lorna isn’t presenting a rose-tinted view of her life, but I do think that accounts of bad behaviour verge on the invasive. Lorna has a lot of friends and followers, who all know when Molly has been grounded for a week or sent straight to bed after dinner; no iPad, no CBBC. But it’s none of our business. If she’s been ‘a lippy little ****’, surely that should stay within the family, within just the household, and not be shared with 2,469 people across the globe, many of whom have never met Molly but all of whom now have a thoroughly negative opinion of her.

Lorna is the very definition of a ‘sharent’, a not-entirely-complimentary term coined by the Wall Street Journal, originally as ‘oversharenting’, a combination of oversharing and parenting, meaning ‘the tendency for parents to share lots of information and photos of their kids online’. It barely needs the explanation.

She takes her posting to excess (in my private and not-shared-at-office-reunions opinion) but a few pictures – birthdays, Christmas – and the odd cute saying can’t cause any harm. Can they?

Psychologist Aric Sigman worries less about the physical danger feared by Amala’s aunt, and more about the damage wreaked on the psyche. “Part of the way a child forms their identity involves having private information about themselves that remains private,” he says. “That is being eroded by social media. I think the idea of not differentiating between public and private is a very dangerous one.”

A recent Ofcom report revealed that more than half of UK parents (56% to be precise) agree with him, saying they don’t post photos/videos of their children on social media, with 87% saying the main reason is that they want their children’s lives to remain private. That’s a very good thing. It’s presented as a problem for the children, but it’s just as big a problem for friends and followers, who are suffering the fallout from oversharenting.

Lorna’s just had twins, and I can’t bear the thought of how the next few years will unfold. In the battle between too many pictures and not enough, give me not enough every time.

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