In 2010, the year Mark Zuckerberg said privacy was no longer a social norm, my child was born. I had no intention of doing anything online that would compromise my daughter’s privacy, but I had never been a parent before and lived 5,000 miles away from where I grew up. Social media was my lifeline, and a place to share her development with our widespread loving family. I transcribed funny and sweet verbatim dialogues between us and posted them for my inner circle. I had become a “sharent” – a parent who publishes information about their child online. What harm could it do?
While I was writing a book about digital afterlives, though, I began thinking about how our online identities are shaped from our first moments, often by other people. Unease descended, and I took my then nine-year-old daughter for lunch and asked if we could have a conversation. “You’re not posting it, are you?” she replied. Sometimes, I only had to take my phone from my bag to elicit this response. Her reflex reaction to my question was the reason I wanted to talk in the first place.
“I read a story in the news about a teenager,” I said, with the forced casualness parents deploy in the hope that their kids will open up to them. “She was talking about her parents posting things from her life on Facebook, and how she felt about it.” I didn’t tell her that the 18-year-old Austrian had felt so uncomfortable about the hundreds of photos posted by her parents that she sued them for violating her right to a personal life.
“I didn’t like it when you were doing the funny conversations on Facebook,” she said matter-of-factly. She meant my beloved dialogues, the ones I had posted for seven years. Everyone had adored them, given the thumbs up, asked for more. I had even bound them in a book, which she had looked through, laughing.
I held my tongue, noticing the effort it took to not defend myself. She told me about times her trust had been betrayed, occasions she asked me not to share and I did it anyway, moments she was surprised or angered when she found out I had posted things without her knowledge. All the times strangers greeted her like an old friend, or when I deprived her of the ability to decide her own boundaries, or she felt exposed.
I was floored, but was it true that she hadn’t told me before? She had often engaged in what psychologists call protest behaviours, using indirect words and actions that signalled emotional discomfort. The evidence is right there, in the quotes I once posted for everyone to see: “Are you writing this down? Putting it on everyone’s iPhones? The entire time I’ve been talking about the chicken farm, you’ve been writing. What are you doing?”
Like an addict, I had started to cover my tracks, transcribe under the table, lie about my activities. That is proof enough that on some level I knew, and that she was no fool. At best, she learned that my interests took precedence over hers. At worst, she felt gaslighted. I asked why she hadn’t said something. “I didn’t think you would stop,” she said, shrugging wearily.
I apologised and asked what she wanted me to do. When she asked me to take everything down and stop posting about her, I felt sick. I hadn’t kept a baby book. Instead, I built a lovingly curated online repository of beautiful photos and charming conversations. I did it for myself, her father, her family and for her, surely for her! Such memories are sacred, I thought. You can’t destroy them.
But I knew I had to respect her wishes. After that conversation, I never posted another image or shared any dialogue on social media relating to my daughter. I also removed all the previous posts from Facebook and Instagram. Before I deleted everything, I used a service to convert everything into books for safekeeping. When they arrived in the post, I saw how my posts had grown exponentially with each year: a magazine-sized volume for 2010, a dictionary-size tome for 2018.
When the sharenting stopped, a self-awareness dawned. Each time I felt that thwarted urge to share, I leaned in to better understand what itch I was seeking to scratch. Sometimes, it was the meaningless, automatic behaviour of pics-or-it-didn’t-happen culture, a habit into which I was nudged by the digital environment, my peers and force of habit. Sometimes, however, I recognised the sharing impulse came from feeling bored, lonely, disconnected or needing validation: my own emotional states that had nothing to do with her.
When people ask about my experience, I tell them it felt like waking up from sleepwalking. I stopped being on autopilot in my relationship with my daughter and her trust in me increased as I became more truthful, more transparent and more fully present in each moment with her.
The virtual social environment remains a precious boon to me and my geographically scattered family. Every Sunday without fail, I log on to Zoom and pull up the New York Times crossword puzzle. Two dings signal the arrival of my parents and my sister’s family. We do the crossword, catch up and laugh. Technology gives us regular private family time we could never have otherwise.
Sometimes, my daughter comes to do the crossword too, but not often – she is a teenager now, with other priorities. I wish she would join in more, but I have learned one thing for certain – in this private virtual space and the wider social media panopticon, it’s up to her.