“A recent study published by AVG, an Internet security company, found that 92 percent of American children have an online presence by the time they are 2. One third of mothers in the United States said that they had posted pictures of their newborns online, and 34 percent of American mothers had posted sonograms of their babies in the womb. According to the AVG study, American mothers are more likely to post pictures of their children online than mothers in any other country.”
This is from a recent story on NYT called “The Digital Lives of Babies“. On a fairly periodic basis, I see a commentary on our new fangled online life. I’ve commented a couple of times (here and here) on the commentary, on what my rationale is and what I suspect our collective rationale might be for the surfeit of information about us that we’re willing to put online. This article in NYT is the first that I’ve seen about the online lives of babies.
But, there are already over 500 million Facebook accounts. Practically everyone online is on it, at least among the Internetati. There are tens, if not a hundred, mobile apps that we can use to share our presence with an online community. We can inform the world where we’re sipping java or vino la casa, where we’re enjoying dosa or tapas or what bookstore, museum or park we’re in. We’re sharing everything from the momentous (sonograms, wedding plans, breakups and fights with depression) to the momentary (sipping a latte at this new cafe, it sucks!!!). So what’s so special about posting pictures of babies ?
When it comes to kids, I’ve found parents, at least the ones I know, quite conservative in posting pictures of their babies online, especially accessible to anyone. Most put them behind closed walls, pseudo-protected by passwords, giving access only to close family and friends. I know of one friend who refuses to post any pictures of his child online. I read that in some Mayan cultures, people forbade photographing children for fear that the child’s soul was too fragile and therefore susceptible to capture by things like photographs.
Fear is the overriding factor when it comes to posting kids photos online, at least to many parents, according to this article titled “Parents, safety advocates debate risk of publishing photos of children“. According to the article: “According to U.S. Department of Justice data, there are about 115 “stereotypical kidnappings” a year, in which a child is taken by a stranger, detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with intent to keep the child permanently, or killed. About 46 of those are killed. In a country with 70 million children, that’s a rate of about .00005 percent.” Even organizations such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children caution on their website that when posting photographs of children online: “… [to] limit access to those you know personally and trust. To limit anyone else’s potential misuse of a photograph of your infant, carefully consider anyone’s request to take a picture of your infant and only share photographs of your infant with those you know personally and trust.”
Once, when I was playing in the park with Maya, I saw a woman was taking pictures of what appeared to be her child. She was shooting pictures of the child wearing different hats. Maya approached the child and started playing with her. After a while, the woman approached me and asked me if she could shoot pictures of Maya and use it on an online store that was planning to open. She promised to send me all the pictures that she took of Maya and also send me the link of her store when she opened it. I agreed and she took a few pictures of Maya wearing some of the hats. She emailed me all the pictures that she said she had taken and a few weeks later sent me a link to her website too which had a picture of Maya wearing her hat.
I didn’t think twice about saying yes to her request to take Maya’s picture. I didn’t agonize over whether the woman was going to sell Maya’s pictures online some place bad. Should I have ?
But the focus of the article in NYT isn’t about this fear. It is more concerned with the effect these online photos will have in how the children perceive themselves as they grow up. The author writes:
“The spontaneity and casualness of snapping family pictures has given way to the calculated, self-conscious display of family members, usually children. … The proliferation of adorable babies and children on the Web makes you wonder, above all, how these children are being perceived by the parents who snap their images, not to mention how they are learning to see themselves.”
On what basis do I select a picture of Maya to post online ? Consider the one posted above. I didn’t post that one until it made sense, as part of this entry. There were two pictures that she sent me and Maya’s face was better visible in this one. The one of Maya’s birthday, I picked to show as many people who had come as possible and I had only 3 pictures, one of which was shaken and the other which contained me and not Maya’s nanny. If we’re making calculated choices about the pictures we pick, I suspect we always have been. With the advent of digital photography, it is just easier to snap away and cull and Photoshop later, unlike the previous era where developing pictures cost a lot of money. But even the previous era, I remember culling pictures to decide which ones went in a photo album and which ones in a shoebox someplace. One criteria that everyone chooses, I suppose, is to cull those in which we look less like the mental image of ourselves. When we post online, do we cull differently ? Are parents looking for an opportunity to post their kids pictures online and hope they go viral ? I like to think that I don’t and I doubt if any of the parents we know think that way. As social animals, we like to share, we like to hang out at corners and indulge in some idle chat. As parents, talking about our kids seems a natural subject, after all we live it and breathe it as intensely as anything else we might experience in our lives. That is not to say that some parents indulge in some kind of one-upmanship or only talk of how wonderful their kids are. But to brand an entire generation that way seems like a little egregious. Maybe there is an entire brand of parental life out there that is alien to me.