Parenting on the Internet

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Introduction

As you can probably tell, I don’t post about my son with anything but the broadest of strokes, and there are no pictures of him on my social media profiles. This is both a difficult choice and a deliberate commitment. On the one hand, I think he’s beautiful and wondrous to behold, and I want to share everything he does with everyone I can. On the other hand, I think there are some real and compelling downsides to posting his early childhood online, especially before he can consent to having intimate details of his life shared so publicly. I know I can control privacy settings to somewhat regulate who among my friends and followers sees what, but that’s a relatively minor concern to what really bothers me about it.

Ultimately, I have to make decisions about what I think is best for my son, best for me, and, where I can, best for the people who exist outside of us. Documenting life via social media has its costs, it has its effects, and I don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze in this case. There are a few reasons why.

Belly-Man

When I was a little kid, I had a pair of pinstriped pajamas and, like most kids, I was always growing out of my clothes. One Christmas, I went to zip up my pajamas and learned that I was too big for them—my belly split the zipper, prompting my Dad to call out, “Look at the Belly-Man!” Everybody had a good laugh, and, since it was Christmas, someone with a camera wanted to take a picture. Dad objected, saying that such a picture might embarrass me later, and yet, here it is.

Portrait of the Author as a Young Man
Portrait of the Author as a Young Man

There’s no way to tell at such a young age what’s going to be a formative moment and what’s not, and I still can’t say whether being photographed with my belly hanging out had more (or less) of an effect on my psyche than the way my Dad said “Belly-Man!” for years afterward, but I can’t deny that they had an effect. While the full causal relationship is more complicated, I have spent most of my life with a certain degree of body dysmorphia, specifically around my midsection, and I still don’t like appearing to have a belly, shirt off or otherwise.

The main thing that bothered me about that incident (of which, to be clear, I have no memory, only the stories my parents tell) was that Dad specifically asked that they not take a picture, yet someone did anyway. This complicates the emotional experience because now I have a photo of myself doing something shameful, or embarrassing, something my Dad thought shouldn’t have been photographed, and that residual impression has left me conflicted about keeping and sharing a photographic record.

As a parent myself, I have a high-resolution camera on me all the time, so I’m almost constantly taking pictures of my son, but they comprise a collection we review together—we talk about what we were doing in each of them and how he felt, both in the moment and now upon reflection. I have a private direct-share photo album that I use to send these pictures to his relatives, but that’s as far as they go.

It’s presumptuous for me to think I’ll know how he’s going to feel about each little vignette, but it will ultimately be his decision which photos and videos stay accessible to other people and which will exist just for us. In the event that some of these pictures end up embarrassing him, he’ll be able to take solace in the fact that no one saw them besides the people who wiped his poopy booty when he was a baby. When he was pre-verbal, all of the pictures I took were candids, but now that he can talk, I try to ask his permission to take a picture or a video whenever I can.

Comparative Parenting

You know and I know, when we talk about it in the abstract, that the things people post to social media are essentially highlights reels—the pictures and videos that look the best, depicting the things people most want to share about themselves. But we also know that the experience of scrolling through Instagram is that of getting a look at the lives of our friends and family, and our broader peer group beyond. It feels naked and honest, like we have a window into their worlds, like we’re just neighbors leaning over each other’s fences, and this leads to false and unfair comparisons.

My experience thus far with parenting has been of wanting to do the absolute best for my child in every situation, and that often means falling short of my expectations because I am (surprise) an imperfect human being and I can always think of a way something could have gone better. While there are countless moments of laughter and boundless joy throughout my daily life with my son, there are also a million little upsets—he might fall while he’s running through the house and bonk his head, or get disappointed that we’re not eating what he wanted to eat and start crying. I want to believe that I’m responding to these mishaps as well as I can, and that such mishaps are normal, but when I see pictures and videos of other kids his age on social media, they’re always smiling, cheerful, playful, and happy.

Do I want to see my friends’ kids crying, screaming, or bruised-up from one of the hundreds of falls that toddlers experience in a week? Absolutely not. But without that context, it feels like my child is the only one falling down, or failing to understand dinnertime, or disagreeing with me about when it’s time to change the diaper. I don’t take many pictures or videos of him when he’s upset (although I do have some—it’s important to me that he learns negative emotional states are a healthy and normal part of life) but certainly no one wants to be seen crying or screaming.

Again, I know logically that there’s more to the story, that every photo is a single slice of a much more complex picture, but the primitive parts of my brain that want to validate my experience by comparing it to the experience of others say that I am an objectively worse parent than the parents in my social media feeds by sheer virtue of the fact that their kids look happy every time I see them. I am a failure because I see my son cry almost daily—he’s at an age where disappointment is frustrating and hard to take in stride—whereas every other parent I know has kids who apparently never cry and are never upset.

If I were to post pictures of my son, I would similarly avoid the ones where he looked upset or ugly or injured, and thus I would perpetuate the problem that plagues me on these platforms—I would be presenting an unrealistic standard of parenthood that had the potential to make other people feel insecure about their parenting. It’s hard enough as it is.

Habit-Forming Social Media Use

I may not have written anything explicit here about the problem of screen addiction, but another reason I won’t put pictures of my son in the slot machine of social media is that I’m trying to be a good role model. If I had a gambling addiction and took my child every day to the casino with its loud, exciting noises and bright, colorful lights, if I sat him on my knee every time I pulled the lever on the slot machine, I would be normalizing a compulsive and destructive behavior.

If I post pictures of him on social media, they will garner reactions. People may “like” or “comment,” but one way or another I will have contributed to a feedback loop that keeps me in constant engagement with a little glowing rectangle in my hand. That engagement, that stimulus-response cycle, will be perceived by my son as “normal,” as the way that humans ought to interact with the world. I’ll be teaching him to seek validation from a social media service that preys on his desire for validation by constantly teasing it—and constantly undermining his feeling of self-worth in the process.

If the social media feed only shows other people at their best, or at least disproportionately depicts their “ups” compared to their “downs,” then we will inevitably feel like our lives are not as good or happy as our peers’ because we have extensive experience with our own “downs” to which to compare them. When we feel like our peers are enjoying a higher quality of life, or a higher status, we value their feedback more than if we felt like they had a lower, lesser experience, and that’s what gives “likes” and “comments” their power. The platform is engineered to artificially inflate our need for validation from the other people we see in our feeds, and I don’t think that’s where my son should derive his sense of self worth.

It’s not real approval, it’s not real validation, and it’s not a real hierarchy. It is an optimized model for engagement that encourages people to contribute to a cycle of making each other feel inferior so they’ll seek the validation of their peers which will always be insufficient to account for the totality of their lived experience. The point is to make you feel like you’re not doing enough, like you’re not pretty enough, like you’re not worth enough, and every post you make is, in part, a subconscious attempt to prove them wrong.

I would like to avoid contributing to a cycle of manufactured insecurity, but I am susceptible to the same techniques and use the same justifications everyone else does to excuse my continued participation. Make no mistake, it is human to want to share our experience with one another, and the advent of social media has certainly expanded the opportunities for creating those kinds of meaningful connections. It’s conceivable that there is a way to engage with social media platforms in a way that you get all of the good stuff and none of the bad stuff—but I have not figured that out. As a result, I don’t want to subject my son to it, I don’t want him to adopt the behavior of engaging with such a predatory enterprise that manufactures desire at the expense of an accurate understanding of the human experience.

Algorithmic Models of Social Media Users/Subjects

Facebook, in particular, has some excellent and highly visible facial recognition software operating under the hood. It’s so good that it can recognize pictures of you out of the billions of faces that get uploaded every day, and that’s the result of training an algorithmic model on existing pictures of you, supplemented by some information about facial construction and how to interpret it. The artificial intelligence that analyzes pictures is also getting pretty good at recognizing objects, animals, and buildings. My phone can not only tell when I have a picture of a cat, it tries to guess the breed.

The more photos I feed these algorithms of myself, the better able they are to recognize me and the better they are at constructing a virtual model of who I am and what I’m like. This model is the meat and potatoes, the bread and butter, the true money-maker of all these free social media platforms—the profitable product. The model is primarily used to train engagement algorithms which are what sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube use to determine what to show me next in my feed to keep me in the app or on the site.

Just like when I see other parents’ pictures of their kids and feel like I’m getting the full picture of their lives (despite intellectually “knowing better”,) it feels like the newsfeed is a natural, organic, chronological snapshot of what’s going on around me. There was a time when this was true, you would open Twitter and it would show the posts from this minute on top of the posts from this hour and so on. Instagram would show you only pictures from people you wanted to see pictures from, in the order that they were posted. You could write on Facebook, “I think I left my wallet a the library” and everyone else who was logged in would see it appear, in real time, and be able to respond while it was still relevant, “Here it is!” instead of days later, “Just saw this—did you ever find it?”

My newsfeed (and yours) is determined primarily by what the algorithmic model of my behavior suggests would be most likely to keep me engaged and interact with whatever I see, and it can change over time as it witnesses my behavior change. My face is just one piece of the model, although it does mean the algorithm can recognize me no matter who posts a picture including me, but there’s also a careful catalog of the location each photo was taken as well as the other people and objects depicted with me.

If I feed these platforms pictures of my child, I’m letting them form an algorithmic model of who he is and what’s likely to captivate his attention before he’s even really aware of himself or of these companies preying on his identity. Before he has the chance to know who he is, they’ll have a detailed catalog of the people, places, and objects in his life, which are valuable data points to stimulate engagement. I don’t want to just hand Big Data that level of control over his behavior.

And that’s just when the algorithmic model is being used as intended. I don’t want to get off topic here, but once that model exists, it can be exploited for other purposes. Right now, in the early 2020’s, millions of social media accounts exist for which there is not a corresponding real person—at least, not directly. A program can download a hundred images of the same person, spanning several years of their life, and combine it with another person’s post history (or an algorithmically-optimized sampling of posts defined by certain keywords) to create a fictional profile that looks, sounds, and acts like a real person. To another user who doesn’t know the original person on which the profile is based, it would be indistinguishable from another human on the internet.

This is a huge deal and I don’t understand why we aren’t talking about it more. Right now, our assumptions about public opinion are informed by the level of online discourse about different subjects, but that presumes that the online discourse is taking place between real humans. Social media bots are convincing facsimiles of real humans because they’re built with disparate elements culled from real humans’ social media profiles.

As much as I don’t want my son to be manipulated by advertisers for profit based on their algorithmic model, I also don’t want his image to be reappropriated by dispassionate software or malicious actors to give legitimacy to something he knows nothing about or espouse an opinion he doesn’t hold.

Conclusion

I still don’t know if I’m making the right call here. In my abstinence from social media participation, I cannot deny that I have felt the isolation, the estrangement, the absolute distance between me and other people, and there is an evolutionarily hardwired part of my brain that feels the visceral pain of this separation. The number of people I consider friends has dwindled to double-digits, and of those I can only count a handful with whom I interact regularly and/or meaningfully.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this feeling of isolation because I no longer have real human interaction in meatspace to fall back on in the absence of this digital facsimile of communication. Whether it’s a real connection or not, my brain thinks it’s real—it feels real enough—so much so that I wonder if I should give up trying to maintain a healthy distance from these manipulative technologies and just give in to the potential for any connection, however tenuous or long-term detrimental.

That’s a decision I have to make for myself, but as long as I’m responsible for my child’s well-being, as long as he can’t make these informed decisions for himself, I have a duty to protect him from these harmful effects to the best of my ability.

About the author

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

By Ian Hayes

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

Get in touch

I'll be honest, social media use can be unhealthy and I'm trying to stay away from it as much as I can. That being said, I have accounts on several of them and I'd love to hear from you however you feel most comfortable communicating.