My Facebook feed often carries pictures of children whom I don't know and, in the case of sonograms, who aren't even born yet. They are strangers to me, albeit cute strangers. If I'm very close to the sender, I'll respond in a private message, "That's the most beautiful baby I've ever seen," and then move on.
Many social media posts showcasing children, however, do bother me. Babies with birthday cake smeared on their faces are not adorable. Nor are children on the edge of tantrum, for whatever silly reason.
But many of these posts are highly objectionable on grounds beyond one grouch's tastes. They are words and images that could boomerang back on children when they become adults — or adolescents in high school. These images are out there forever and could be edited with mischievous captions.
Social scientists apply the word "sharenting" to the practice of displaying one's children on social media. How would you feel if someone posted daily images of you without your input?
A British study found that nearly 1,500 images of the average child had gone online before age 5. "Baby pics drive clicks," writes Anya Kamenetz, an NPR education reporter. "Millennial moms are the holy grail," a marketer told her.
One mother I do know tweeted an account of one daughter tormenting her other. No names were posted, but anyone who knew the family could easily figure out which child was acting cruelly. Someday that kid might be running for state attorney general and find reporters rummaging through those long-ago posts.
Images are especially problematic — even childish pictures of boys sticking their tongue out. As Kamenetz writes, an innocent video of a little girl doing cartwheels could be mined by pedophiles for a specific split-second view.
A growing literature says that these pictures, innocent ones included, can be an invasion of the child's privacy. The child has no say on what becomes public for cyberspace eternity.
A mother on Twitter attached a photo of her teen daughter the day the girl's school sent her home for inappropriate dress. Mom thought the girl looked fine, but one can imagine how many times that picture of an adolescent with big breasts in a tight top was passed around.
In their desperation for recognition (and advertising dollars?), some parents have actually subjected their children to online abuse. One couple's YouTube channel centered on awful behavior within their family. In one video, the father urged their son to slap an 11-year old, making her cry. The channel had 750,000 subscribers. They rightly lost custody of two kids.
I, for one, am highly grateful that there wasn't Facebook, Instagram or Twitter when I was in high school and college. I sometimes dressed in stupid ways, used obscenities I barely understood and held thoughts that needed a lot more baking. And like many other adolescents, I yearned for attention.
Spending all day with little children can be a lonely business. Making them the object of public scrutiny on social media is not the way to overcome the isolation of parenthood. If one wants to share images of their offspring with acquaintances, exchanging photo albums or emails with JPG attachments would seem the more dignified approach.
Except in cases of child pornography, there is nothing parents can do about others taking pictures of their children — say, in a park — and sharing them online. (Under Australian law, one only needs permission to photograph people on private property.)
The least parents can do is monitor their own judgment about what they share on social media. A bad outcome would be their children growing up to resent them for turning their youth into a public spectacle.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.