Last year, my mother proudly shared a photo of my sister and me holding our picket sign on her public Instagram account with a couple of hundred followers. We didn’t think much else of it, until my Facebook feed began to blow up with notifications: SBS News Australia had picked up the photo and posted it to its Facebook, with more than a million followers. It was soon inundated with comments labelling my sister and me everything from “uneducated” to “virtue signalling”.
It was a social media blow-up that we had never asked for, and could never have imagined. But mum had asked for our OK to post the photo, so while it was far from pleasant, we were able to withstand the abuse because we both felt confident in the way we were portrayed. I couldn’t imagine how the same situation would have gone if I hadn’t given permission for mum to post that photo, and watch it subsequently be plastered across the internet.
My mother, like an increasing number of parents, is no stranger to posting what seems like every event in the lives of me, my sister and our dog to her social media followers. (Mostly our dog.) Family friends joke that the weekend doesn’t start until they’ve seen at least one photo of my dog failing to spot me out on the water at rowing. When we go on holidays, relatives back home await reviews from the “hot chocolate critics”, where mum will share our ratings on our beverage of choice, a theme for some years.
This is all harmless, and will be nice to look back on one day. But as my sister and I grow up and get social media profiles of our own, the debate over whether mum can photograph, post and tag us has become much more contentious. When I saw Apple Martin’s (Gwyneth Paltrow’s 14-year-old daughter) annoyance at her own mother’s unauthorised photo sharing (albeit, with 5.3 million followers to my mother’s few hundred), it felt like deja vu.
A simple, harmless snap shared by a parent on the internet is no longer the child’s, or theirs to control. It can spiral out of control very quickly, and can be damaging to kids.
My mother is well-intentioned. I’m sure Gwyneth Paltrow is, too. When social media is something you encounter as an adult, you have an entirely different perspective. It’s a way to share your life with your friends, rather than something around which one’s life and friends are in many ways centred. Like a lot of people my age, social media is much more than just a photo or status-sharing platform, but a carefully curated profile from which I network, talk with my friends and engage with the wider world. In this light, an photo posted without permission is far more irritating than many parents appreciate it to be.
When children are old enough to have their own social media profiles, they’re also old enough to begin thinking about what image they want to make of themselves online. This highlights the importance of consent when it comes to parents’ social media sharing: If it concerns your child, it concerns their online presence, something that will be with them for a long time. They should be able to have a say in what this image is, and be able to veto posts that they feel may take away from it.
This can be disheartening for some parents and I can see why. But I encourage them to think back to their adolescent years: if your own parents had been able to post whatever, whenever about you, wouldn’t you have been a little disgruntled too? After all, you could always get hold of the family photo album, take out the photo and shred it for all time. Or so I hear.
There’s something to be said for building trust between parents and kids when we feel like our input is valued and our parents take our opinions into consideration when deciding to post. In my own extended family, we started a rule that all photos of anyone need permission before they can be posted. This came after a few quarrels over unauthorised sharing. It makes the posts more cherished, and decreases the amount of late-night blocking.
This all leads back to the permanence and volatility of the internet. A simple, harmless snap shared by a parent on the internet is no longer the child’s, or theirs to control. It can spiral out of control very quickly, and can be damaging to kids.
I get that parents mean well when they put us on social media, but these are public platforms and should be something for all of us to enjoy. That can only happen when everyone is happy about being there. In education around school and college media, we’re lectured to think before we post and reminded that our profiles are with us for life. We ask the same of our parents: check before you upload. It may even get you a follow back.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Grace Lagan is an Australian student who writes on social issues.