On December 19, the Federal Trade Commission passed a law increasing privacy safeguards on children’s mobile apps and websites. Under the new law, websites and apps will have to get parental permission to collect photos, videos and other information that children post online.
“Parents, not social networks or marketers, will remain the gatekeepers when it comes to their children’s privacy,” explained Jim Steyer, head of the child media advocacy group Common Sense Media.
This is all well and good, but a question remains: Who will protect children from their parents?
The greatest threat to children’s privacy online does not come from corporations. It comes from parents – specifically, the self-described “mommy bloggers” who reveal the most personal details of their children’s lives on the internet, often using their real names and photos.
As Slate’s Hanna Rosin notes, entries from mommy bloggers include ruminations on which child they like better or the pleasures of getting drunk while caring for toddlers. Mommy bloggers defend their practices by saying they view the internet as therapy and that blogging keeps them “sane”.
They see their posts – which sometimes include fantasies of beating and abusing children – as a welcome alternative to the unrealistic standards of parental perfection pushed by the media.
It is so hard to be a mother, they say. But it is far harder, one suspects, to be the child of a mommy blogger.
National controversy over a post
Recently I became involved in a national controversy over a post written by a blogger named Liza Long called “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother“, in which Long compared her 13-year-old son to the man who slaughtered 26 people in Newton, CT, as well as to other mass murderers.
While she changed her son’s first name, she wrote the post under her own name and included his photo, making his identity easy to discern. The post went viral, as did my critical response, leading to an overhyped “mommy war” that neither of us were interested in participating in.
I have refused to discuss the case with the media. Over 20 outlets approached me, including, revealingly, Inside Edition and Entertainment Tonight. (In our warped media economy, the agonies of troubled families count as entertainment.) The reason I refused is because doing so would perpetuate practices to which I am opposed – the exploitation of children for personal and financial gain, and the violation of a child’s privacy for an adult’s self-promotion.
“To reveal the personal struggles
This does not mean I am against parents using the internet to discuss the difficulties they face. The intense response to Long’s post initiated a long overdue discussion on the need for quality mental health care in America. Many anguished parents are grateful to Long for breaking a perceived taboo on the discussion of mental illness.
Despite my alarm at Long’s post, the conversation that has emerged is a welcome development. The stigma surrounding mental illness should end, and parents who have difficult, often overwhelming parenting responsibilities should have a strong network of support. But this needs to happen without compromising the privacy of children.
To reveal the personal struggles of a mentally ill minor online – in particular, to paint him as unstable and violent – is a form of child abuse. Not only does it violate the bond between a child and the person who is supposed to protect him, it can lead to the child being mocked, attacked and shunned by his own community when he is already vulnerable.
Moreover, the damage is permanent. Even if a mentally ill child gets the help he needs, even if he changes his behaviour, the words of his mother will follow him. When he applies to college, when he looks for a job, he will not be able to escape the nightmarish portrayal painted by his mother, the person who knew him best, the person who sold him out.
Need to protect children’s identity
To be clear, not all self-described “mommy bloggers” are like this. Many write posts on parenthood that are thoughtful and illuminating. “What Six Looks Like“, arguably the most moving and well-written work to emerge in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, was written by Jennifer Rowe Walters, a stay-at-home mom who blogs as “The Real Housewife of Cleveland County”. The internet has given stay-at-home mothers a public voice and allowed the challenges of parenting to be discussed openly and honestly.
But with that power comes responsibility – and the first responsibility of any mother writing about her child should be respecting her child’s right to privacy. As Long’s situation demonstrates, even a sparsely-read blog can go viral in an instant. There are several things parents can do to protect their children while writing about their lives online.
First, they can practice anonymity. Some mommy bloggers have argued that their need for total honesty trumps the responsibility to protect their child’s identity. They believe that posting under a pseudonym would make them lose credibility. This raises the question of what is more important: assuaging a flock of internet followers or shielding a child from humiliation and harm.
Second, they should consider how their child would feel should they read their blog – because if their child is not doing it already, he will be eventually. It is one thing for a parent to express frustration, exhaustion or exasperation. It is another to call a child names, fantasise about abusing them, reveal embarrassing or personal information, or compare them to killers.
Children should be treated like human beings, not objects to be degraded for clicks and cash. The powerlessness of children to defend themselves against their parents’ portrayals makes this point particularly salient.
Third, parents should be aware that what is written in haste can circulate forever. Young people should not have the most painful parts of their childhood documented for all time. Parents should consider not only their child’s present, but their future, and how their words will affect their child’s personal life and professional opportunities.
After Newtown, everyone is looking for answers on how to protect their children. We need to extend the conversation to how to protect them online – from others, and from ourselves.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.