This story is part of Protect Your Parents From the Internet Week.
As the oldest millennials reach 40 (gulp), many are parents who are fretting about protecting their kid’s privacy online. Some find their most cunning opponent isn’t a big tech company. It’s grandma.
The struggle began in the maternity ward for Maggie — to avoid family drama, we’re only using first names for all the people in this story — when she had her first child and her parents met the new addition. “We told them that we were being very conservative with his online presence and to please ask us before they posted any photos of him,” said Maggie.
No matter the outcome, the very fact that Maggie had to have the conversation marks a big change in online privacy.
A decade ago, digitally aware parents would lock down Gmail address and Twitter handles for their new babies in the second trimester, squatting in anticipation of Junior’s first emails. Lifestyle blogging was at its peak, and sharing a baby’s first steps and diaper blowouts seemed normal.
Kids born 10 years ago are now googling themselves, shocked to discover the digital traces their parents have left about them. Young parents today aren’t just living in a post-Dooce world, they’re in a post–Cambridge Analytica world — worried about the vast and unknowable reams of data that tech companies collect. In France, parents can even be thrown in jail for posting pictures of their kids online without their consent.
Parent bloggers now announce they will no longer post photos of their kids (creating content out of that decision). Privacy experts are warning against posting photos or public information about children. And more and more often, parents are deciding not just to limit social media posts of their kids — but to post none at all.
“We don’t post photos of our toddler. We didn’t post anything about his birth,” said Kathleen. “While my husband and I would like to share some photos of our guy, having this ‘we don’t post’ policy really has made it easier to enforce.”
But the plan goes sideways when older relatives — often grandparents — post to Facebook. Older Facebook users are less likely to understand the intricacies of changing their privacy settings, even though the social network has clarified them in the last few years.
“Older folks, certainly, there’s a learning curve because this is new,” said Amy Nofziger, who, as director of fraud victim support for AARP, helps older people parse the new rules of the internet. “People who are grandparents or great-grandparents today are the first people to have color TVs in their homes, and now they have this thing called the internet.”
“My mom has a public profile and posts several times a day on her page and has tons of interactions, often with people she doesn’t necessarily know,” said Danielle. “Because I want to be more private about photos of my son, I have had to ask her to please not post his picture — or, if she’s going to, that she please change the privacy settings for that specific post. For the most part she has done what I’ve asked, but I could tell she was really annoyed about it. One time she posted a photo that straight-up had our home address on it, and she couldn’t understand why I was so upset!”
Some parents will tell family members up front about their “no public baby photos on Facebook” rules. “I did this early on with my mom,” said one anonymous parent. “I changed my privacy restrictions and made it so I had to approve anyone who tagged me or themselves in my posts. She was tagging herself in every pic of my daughter and random people were commenting.”
“My parents constantly tag themselves in photos of my kids, opening the photos up to an almost unlimited audience. It’s maddening,” said Ashley. “Even my uncle — whom I’m not close to but treats Facebook like it’s his job — screenshot a photo of my son after his birth and posted it for his 4,000 (!!!!) Facebook friends to see with my son’s full name and place of birth within an hour after I had him.”
After Ashley asked her husband’s parents to stop tagging, she said they were offended but followed through.
“We are very conservative and don’t post any online pics of our son. Yet my father-in-law still posted photos from the birth. I sent him a very lengthy and involved email explaining my experience working with pedophiles, how we didn’t want a corporation like Facebook to own my son’s image (he’s a big hippie so I thought it would appeal to him), and explained about children whose images had been turned into memes and what it had done to their lives. Needless to say, he never posted again.”