Overshared Childhood: Parenting and Privacy in the Social Media Age

Friday night situation: everybody’s home after Dad’s been traveling all week, nobody has anyplace to be, the house is clean, and there’s Chinese takeout for dinner. I’ll add to this perfect tableau that my kids have mostly graduated from watching cartoons full of grating, whiny voices and now like to watch kids cooking shows on the Food Network.  All in all, a lovely evening–and if you’ve got a busy family, you know that these kinds of peaceful home nights don’t happen often. Or at least, they don’t happen easily. You sometimes have to be intentional about not having every moment of your life planned.

So anyway, it was a great night of laying around doing not much of anything. The kids were half watching Food Network, and half wrestling around on the floor like puppies, like they always do. Then they started doing these balancing postures–kind of like pairs yoga, mixed with some Cirque du Soleil action, with a little down-home spirit of “hey, ma, watch this!” thrown in for good measure. It was hilarious. They were achieving positions only possible for the young and flexible. It helps that they got the impossibly lithe and lanky frame of their dad’s side of the gene pool.

Anyway, it was funny to begin with, and at some point I got on the floor with them and tried to show them how to re-enact the lift scene from Dirty Dancing. Hilarity ensued.

At some point, I got out my phone to take pictures. And you know what my 8-year-old said? “You should take a video and put it on YouTube!”

It is worth noting that I have never posted anything to YouTube in my life. I’m sure I could figure it out if I needed to, but it’s not like this a part of my kids’ daily experience. They love to watch crazy cat videos as much as anyone, but that is pretty much the extent of their usage.

I’ve also noticed lately that when I take pictures of them, they often say “you should put that on Facebook!” They are 6 and 8. They do not have Facebook accounts, nor do they really know how it works or who sees what on there. They just know that sometimes their picture goes on there. And people ‘like’ it.

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I’ve always carefully navigated what I share about my kids, and where is share it. I almost never mention them in sermons–because a wise mentor once told me that if you quote your children in your preaching, they will learn to edit themselves at the dinner table. Believe me, that stuck. Hard. I’ve carried that awareness into other parts of life and parenting. You’ll notice, for one thing, that I rarely use their names on this blog, and rarely post their pictures. That’s mostly a safety thing, but it is also about their privacy.

I just wrote a book about family values, and even there–as I constantly drew on life with my kids–I was very discerning about what I shared. I frequently cringe at what other writers share about their kids–and even what some of my own friends post on social media. We are the first generation of parents to have to navigate this particular world with our children, and I’m sure none of us gets it right all the time. But a measure of mindfulness is crucial. Some people will post anything, never once thinking that in a few years their kids will have accounts of their own and be able to see what mom and dad were saying about them when they were potty training; or enduring the awkward tween years.

As careful as I’ve been, my kids have clearly picked up on at least one negative aspect of the media experience that I had hoped I could shield them from… that “always watched” phenomenon that I so struggle with myself. That sense of “who else can I invite into this moment” that can break into even the most perfect and chill of Friday nights. Why do we do that? How did we get so over-shared that even our children pick up on the broader audience potential of every waking moment?

I don’t really have an answer. But the question of how we got here is not as critical as the question of how we walk through this new wide-open and exposed landscape with our kids as they grow. In a way, it is human nature to want others to bear witness to our lives–shared experience is meaningful experience. It’s natural that we want to draw a community into moments that feel important. But at some point, thinking about the community that we want to draw into a moment, effectively takes us out of the moment. What I hope to learn, for my children, is the healthy way to be here, now; and maybe share later. Maybe.

Meanwhile, it is clear that our kids are affected by social media culture long before they have accounts of their own. What’s critical is that we empower them with the narrative of their own lives, and not just make it an extension of our own.

I’ve touched on some of this in my new book, More Than Words: Ten Values for the Modern Family (which you can pre-order now!). It’s an ongoing conversation: the importance of understanding how identity is shaped at home and through our extended networks; and, most importantly, how we can equip our children to maintain that sense of identity and belonging as they wade into extended networks of their own.

Yes, that was a shameless plug for the book–and I’m sure there will be more to come. But I’m also starting a new Saturday morning series on the blog here to share reflections on marriage and parenting. I would love to hear your questions, concerns, or just what’s on your mind these days as far as navigating family life in the modern era. Drop me a note, or comment here, to join the conversation.

Peace, and happy Saturday to y’all. Be present–be where you are, and be with who you’re with. Share later. Or maybe don’t.

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