According to a press release I got this morning, nearly one in five kids has been bullied on social media. Other estimates are even higher: DoSomething.org puts the number at 43 percent, and 75 percent have visited a website where they’ve witnessed bullying of a classmate.
My kids are young. I haven’t dealt with online bullying firsthand yet. My older son hasn’t even asked for a cell phone, and his primary acquaintance with the lawless online world is YouTube. (Which is, in fact, pretty lawless.)
But as of yesterday, I’m navigating the slippery slope of social media with my children. When my second-grader was young, I could take photos of him grinning dapperly or post videos of him dancing to rap (he’s an alarmingly good dancer, a trait not inherited from me!) and think nothing of it. I’m not one of those stage-mom bloggers who wants to transform her child into an online celebrity. My family does not have a “brand.” I would only post if he did something precocious or funny. Like most people.
Last night, he was sitting at the table, doing his homework and grumbling about it. He had an annoyed, pensive look, because I’d asked him to please-please-please write more than a sloppy one-sentence reply to a homework question. He was rolling his eyes, long lashes tipped heavenward, and he looked adorable. I grabbed my phone and snapped a picture. It felt as natural as breathing.
Typically, he’d be clueless. But this time, he snapped to attention and swatted my hand, lunging across the table and gripping my iPhone with his sticky mitts.
“Delete it!” he yelled.
“What?” I asked, genuinely confused. “You looked cute.”
“Mom! Delete it! Don’t post it anywhere!” He started to tear up.
This was new. He never cared until now. And, really, I never considered his feelings. It was always open season on his cute behavior: smooth dance moves, handsome grins and silly quotes. He was fodder for me.
I looked at the photo. It was perfect, halfway between innocent second-grader and world-weary teen. But then I stopped and wondered why I wanted to share it. Really. True confession: I wanted to share it in part because it’s relatable. Most of my friends are at the stage now where we need to cajole our kids into homework, and relating to other people feels validating. And, partially, it was a great photo…so, fine, another part of me wanted to share that with the world (or my Instagram followers). It’s vanity, right? Look how cute my kid is! Look at the funny/silly/smart thing he did or said! It’s not malicious vanity, but it’s vanity and self-actualization just the same.
Social media has made the compulsion to share our inner lives seductively mainstream and legitimate. What in years past might have been classified as narcissism or self-absorption is now as routine as blinking. It’s part of the currency of connection. It’s almost natural. Online, social mores are deflated; what might be seen as self-aggrandizement at a party is just par for the course in an endless, palatable, unobjectionable online scroll.
But is it ethical? Maybe, when it comes to adults. But when it comes to kids, especially kids old enough to have strong opinions on the matter, we’re on murkier ground. My second-grader is autonomous; he’s a human, not an accessory. His story, his opinions and his gorgeous lashes aren’t mine.
I’m not saying that parents who post photos of their kids are raging narcissists with ego problems: I’m saying that social media has obscured the right to privacy and normalized this behavior so that absolutely anyone, even completely well-meaning people who just want to share their Disney vacation photos, can fall into the privacy trap. Who doesn’t like “likes”? Who doesn’t enjoy reading the “He’s so cute!” and “Getting so big!” comments from friends? But are these images really yours to share? This is to say nothing of the logistical concerns of bullying. It’s a moral dilemma: What right do I have to take his photo and display it?
So instead of absentmindedly posting his photo and going off to make dinner, I did what he asked and I deleted it. My virtual micro-audience will never get to scroll past his handsome profile or pensive frown. And I’m going to have to change my ways, or at least think more carefully about them from now on. What am I sharing? And why am I sharing it? I haven’t figured out the right formula, but I’m glad he spoke up.