Removing my children from the Internet

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About a week ago I began deleting all photos and videos of my children from the Internet. This is proving to be no easy task. Like many parents, I’ve excitedly shared virtually every step, misstep and milestone that myself and my children have muddled our way through.

To be honest, aside from making sure my Facebook privacy permissions were set, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought about sharing photos of the kids online. I’ve run this blog (in various formats) for about a decade, and sharing stuff on it was just what I did. What I’ve always done. It’s sort of the point of it. And when in the last few years I’ve started blogging less and posting on Facebook more, I carried that same sense of “my life is an open book” with me to the social network.

My view on sharing photos of the kids has always been that the advantages of having an easy, centralized way of sharing photos with an extended family that are thousands of kilometres away outweighed the largely fictional threat of creepy people having access to them.

Several months ago I read Jeremy Goldkorn’s rant on the subject. The article itself is excellent food for thought, but it was something in a post-script that resonated most with me:

This is not only about privacy, it’s also about your child’s identity. We are human beings, not amoebas. How would you like it if your mother and father were in charge of your social media presence? That’s what you’re doing to your children.

At the time I was resistant to surrendering my position, which it appears many other readers of the article shared, that we now live in an extremely interconnected world where privacy is simply not the same as it used to be. I was looking at this strictly as a “privacy” issue, and I felt that keeping baby photos off the Internet was akin to bailing a tide pool.

In the months since, I’ve returned to topic a few times and found myself increasingly conflicted about things. In response to Jeremy, a mutual friend, John Biesnecker, added the following point to the discussion:

My wife and I do have ground rules for posting things, the most basic of which being never to post something that we’d be embarrassed about if our parents had posted something similar of us as a child. Is this making choices for our children? Yes, but so is virtually everything else one does as the parent of a small child — and some of those choices have real, material, immediate impacts on your child’s life, impacts far greater, I would argue, than photos posted on Facebook.

You make a good point, though you don’t expound on it, regarding the inevitability of one’s identity showing up online. If this is indeed inevitable — and I agree that it is — then you’re far better off controlling and shaping that narrative to the extent possible, rather than allowing it to be shaped for you by others.

Now it should be noted that John works for Facebook, and so one would assume that at least to some degree his views would align with the company’s share-friendly ethos. However, he makes a good point about acting as a guardian of your child’s online identity. And that brings us to my tipping point, Amy Webb’s article on Slate, in which she shares the story of “Kate” and her share-happy parents:

With every status update, YouTube video, and birthday blog post, Kate’s parents are preventing her from any hope of future anonymity.

That poses some obvious challenges for Kate’s future self. It’s hard enough to get through puberty. Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates? If Kate’s mother writes about a negative parenting experience, could that affect her ability to get into a good college? We know that admissions counselors review Facebook profiles and a host of other websites and networks in order to make their decisions.

There’s a more insidious problem, though, which will haunt Kate well into the adulthood. Myriad applications, websites, and wearable technologies are relying on face recognition today, and ubiquitous bio-identification is only just getting started. In 2011, a group of hackers built an app that let you scan faces and immediately display their names and basic biographical details, right there on your mobile phone. Already developers have made a working facial recognition API for Google Glass. While Google has forbidden official facial recognition apps, it can’t prevent unofficial apps from launching. There’s huge value in gaining real-time access to view detailed information the people with whom we interact.

The easiest way to opt-out is to not create that digital content in the first place, especially for kids. Kate’s parents haven’t just uploaded one or two photos of her: They’ve created a trove of data that will enable algorithms to learn about her over time. Any hopes Kate may have had for true anonymity ended with that ballet class YouTube channel.

It forced me to really dig deep into why I share photos of my kids. Convenience? Sure. But there are convenient ways to share photos with family that don’t run the risk of my kids unwittingly being used in advertisements or enshrined in Google Image searches for all time. While Zoë Stagg attributes it to ego, and while there is some science to back that up, I believe it was pride that was leading me to share.

Of course as pride goes, pride for your children is about the best kind there is. But after I put it in that context, I realized that the statement isn’t “convenience > fleeting privacy” but rather “sharing pride < maintaining control". The pride I have for my children, and the resulting desire to share that with everyone that will listen (and "like" it) is not worth my children not having some modicum of control of their online identity and anonymity in the future. And so I've taken a tip from Amy Webb's article and expanded on something I had already done to a limited extent -- in addition to removing all media featuring them from the public Internet, I've created a digital trust of sorts. I’ve registered domain names and e-mail accounts for both boys. They may never use them, but at least they’ll have the option to in the future, and it will give them a leg up on managing their digital identities when they reach an age when that will be important to them.

It may be inevitable that when they grow tall enough to have cameras and social media accounts they’ll share every mundane and embarrassing detail of their lives, with Facebook and Google mining it all for advertisers. And so be it, such is the world in which we live. As their father I don’t feel it’s my job to insulate my children from the world, but rather it’s to be the best custodian of their future selves I can be. Most of the time that means preparing them with the knowledge and tools they’ll need, in this case it means understanding I don’t need to share my pride in them in digital media format for that pride to exist, and in the process it means protecting their digital identities long enough for them to make a mess of it themselves.

60 Responses

  1. As a father of two, as a son who still remembers being embarrassed at various pictures taken of me as a toddler that were trotted out at many slideshows, I greatly appreciate what you have written here.

    I wish it was easier to share images of kids without the privacy repercussions that I do think are real.

  2. Good write up! as a person at “That” age where his friends are starting to have babies, Im getting sick of their illogical overshares. My feed is not you baby’s photo album!

    • Your feed is a reflection of what is happening in your friends lives, not what you feel they should share with just you.

      A feed you subscribe to (by being a friend) is an outgoing source of information/news/baby photos. If it’s not something that’s of interest, perhaps you don’t have as much in common with your friends at this stage of your respective lives and if you’re on facebook you can just hide their “illogical” updates.

  3. It’s a conundrum. You want your extended family to see photos of the children but how can you do this in a way that feels “safe”. Too many (all?) online business that deal with this process base their businesses on virally infecting you & your contacts.

    So, I’m in the process of building a private photo sharing site for my family. Something like Apple’s free photostream but with the ability to post videos as well as photos and share them within a select, invited, circle (who get access without any kind of sign-up process or other odious “onboarding” system).

    I’d be interested in knowing what set of features & protections such a site would have to have before trusting it with pictures of your family.

    • @Garry, I’m also working on this problem. I’m of the opinion that the only way to keep things private is to leave it 100% offline. That said, I think there are ways to reach a middle-ground of protecting media, while also making it accessible to those you want to have access to it.

      As I run this site on WordPress, and develop using WordPress, I had initially hoped to use password protected posts to create a wall around pics and vids of my kids. The problem I ran into though was that while the posts are protected, the media still wouldn’t be, and would be picked up by search bots. Potentially I could use Robots.txt to “suggest” the search engine doesn’t index it, but that doesn’t guarantee anything and is a rather glaring hole in the plan.

      For the moment I’m using Vimeo for sharing videos, which is nice in that it allows password access to videos for non-members (something that Youtube is missing). This does, however, leave the media in the hands of a 3rd party service, and so ultimately will not do for me.

      In the end, I’ll likely use Drupal, which has a private file system method of handling media that depends on .htaccess server-side rules to protect files. I’ll have to give it some more thought before I dive into it though.

      If anyone has thoughts or suggestions, please leave them in the comments here.

      • I’ve looked into a couple of 3rd party sites, e.g., but I didn’t like the feel. In particular 23snaps makes you create an account to view anything and the focus of the site is on selling 23snaps services to your family. It also has a “social” feel which isn’t what I’d want.

        I know that apple’s photostream has been very successful and popular amongst my family and it’s that kind of minimal — list of photos — style that I’m going for.

        I’m using it as a chance to try out some newish technologies & so it’s 100% home-rolled. This also allows me to build in my own security model and features (such as being able to make any “invitee” into a collaborator). It’s at a very early stage but if you’re interested in trying it out as an informal alpha/beta tester I’d be more than pleased to give you access.

      • Hi Ryan,
        Thanks a lot for this excellent write up. I think it has opened a plethora of privacy issues that I would have not realised otherwise.

        This might not be the most elegant of solutions but I can tell you what I have been using for sometime now. I believe in purpose over aesthetics. I host my private VPN server and route all client traffic through this machine. Orthogonally, all my photos are on a private WebDAV share locally on my machine and I have limited access to groups within a certain IP that is dependent on the client machines connecting through the OpenVPN. Of course, if you want to arbitrarily share your media with a lot of relatives, this will never work. I seldom do that and this works for me.

  4. I made a secret email address for my baby, and have been sending pictures and messages since before birth. Some day (tenth birthday?) I’ll give them the login info.

    (Got the idea from a Gmail ad.)

  5. I should note that I wasn’t a Facebook employee when I wrote text that you quoted, though I’d agree that I agree broadly with FB’s stance on sharing (or else I wouldn’t have gone to work for them).

    I wish you luck, though I’ll miss seeing pictures of your kids growing up — they’re adorable. 🙂

  6. Who cares? I mean really. This world seems to be getting overly paranoid about privacy, the NSA etc. with billions of people on this planet it’s just arrogant to assume that anybody anywhere cares about you or your families picture or comments.

    • I’ll show you paranoid.. In 2034 World War 3 end, leaving your <> on the looser side of the war. The new ruler’s, which now want to stabilize the new area choose to clear out all “problem-making aspects” of the current population, such as minorities, known criminals, and all other things they do not like.
      How would they do this in a few days’ time? Do a big data search against all their databases such as Facebook, google and whatever, and produce a nice list with names, address, phone, family, work details.
      And why stop there, since you are on the list, your friends probably share some of your “views/beliefs” so they are placed on the list as well.

      Worst case would be a holocaust all over, or it could be more simple, as kicked out of the country/continent, all possessions confiscated and be left for dead, or banned from healthcare, or other support functions as or labor and welfare.

      Oh, and don’t bother hiding, they have over 1000+ images and videos of you and everyone you know already.

      So I leave you this with my fake name, with fake email, and VPN IP address in the logs of the site…

    • Because someone can easily do a reverse image search on your avatar to find out more from a simple photo. For example I now know that you are Tim Hugall of Somorset, UK. This opens the doors to stalkers and unsavory people.

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  8. I find this really confusing. Who gets embarrassed by pictures of themselves playing like a kid when they were a kid? Do people really worry that they’ll be judged if someone finds that picture of themselves when they were 3 and dumped peanut butter in their hair?

    There’s no picture of me as a kid that I’d be embarrassed for anyone to see. I was a kid, do you think that because I was a messy eater at 5, that somehow impacts my current life?

  9. How do you deal with the issue of other people who take pictures of your kids? Once they hit later elementary school, they will be in photos taken by their friends, or at parties, school events, etc. And the older they get, more people will have them in their pictures (friends, clubs, schools, etc)

    • Even though I had shared some pictures of my little girl later on, we were very strict not posting any baby pictures, and even all pregnancy pictures appeared with quite a delay. To deal with other people taking pictures- I have literally asked my friend to delete the pictures with my child from her posts. She can publish her daughters birthday as much as she wants, unless there is my child in the picture. And I think that should be respected everywhere.. The only issue later may arise that the kid is left out of the ‘group pictures’ for everyone else being able to share it..

      I have shared only few pictures of my daughter on the internet, none of them I would consider any other than cute, sweet, beautiful. Meanwhile I am totally against posting every second of my childs life out for the world to see. Now after this article I am not motivated to delete the few I have out, but I am definitely inspired not to continue sharing loads.

      Being embarrassed about what you can find on the internet- I think that’s one thing we all have to learn a little to do ourselves. To think seriously what we say out in the world. I’ve read enough personal laundry and I thinkg it’s horrible to say it out like that. We should be the example to our children what is the ok level of personal revelations on the internet.

  10. Internet privacy is a big issue. And yes, anything you leave on the net can be used against you if the party investigating you wants you bad enough.

    As in a boss that no longer wants you working for him/her but needs something to pin on you so they do not get sued for letting you go.

    Or a politician using your information to target you with ads or have you investigated for speaking out against them .

    Or Businesses doing the same to your Children .

    Or a pervert just looking for a cute boy/girl to kidnap and lock up in a basement.

    Yes that last one is rare, but it does happen.

    Saying… ” why bother with protection on the net when its all open?”

    is like saying ” Why bother locking the door to my home?, they (thieves) can just drive a car thru it”

    But one thing I must say and not Bragging much, just pointing out,

    I have never posted pictures of my children, nor have I posted any comments about my life , loves or interests on any website.

    Only comments on articles i feel need commenting on…

    You people (everyone posting personal data on the net) need to stop being attention whores and keep your lives to yourselves.

    Trust me, most people do not want you to share your ideas or thoughts or photos of your kids doing boring shit!.

    They just want you to show up on moving day and help move the washer and dryers. Nuff said!

  11. I have, over the past year, developed the same opinion of sharing photos of children on Facebook and other social media sites. Even beyond the comparatively benign factors of usurped identity and embarrassment are the factors of criminal and deviant minds. I have worked as a child advocate for children who have been abused, abandoned, neglected, and exploited for almost ten years now. People think I’m crazy when I bring this up, but when you post your child on the Internet, you can be issuing an invite for miscreants to exploit that image or even use it to track your child down to kidnap them. Oh, isn’t that sweet, Johnny is in his soccer uniform! Well, I can see Johnny’s jersey number, his team colors, his team name, and I see that you’re from West Chester, PA.

    All I have to do now is call up the athletic department at Johnny’s school and say, “Hi, I’m Johnny’s dad…I heard something about the next practice being rescheduled or relocated, can you give me some info on that? I don’t want Johnny to miss it.”

    Boom, I’m waiting to swipe little Johnny.

    Two weeks ago, my friend’s relative posted a picture of her almost four-year-old daughter standing buck naked in nothing but rain boots in his backyard. Adorable? Sure, to the family. How about the friends of the friends of the friends? Which one of them is a pedophile that could be using that photo for their own disgusting purposes?

    People don’t think about the kind of world we live in today. Come to work with me sometime and I’ll show you how it is.

    The only thing that I worry about with my own children someday is that my relatives will not be respectful. How do you keep other people from posting your children’s pictures?

  12. Hi Ryan,

    Nice post and thoughtfulness. I was a pretty early adopter of blogging in 2004-2005, as well as FB, and put up all kinds of pictures of myself from when I was younger and into adulthood.

    I enjoyed having the freedom and right to put up what I wanted to put up, rather than live with anything that was already out there. At 42, I would probably put up a different set of photos than what I did at 35. But they’re out there and always will be, so I’ve never taken any of it down.

    I have a 3 year old daughter now and as tempting as it was to share photos of her through the convenience of Facebook, etc, I didn’t want pictures of her viewable by everyone. Sure, there are permissions and privacy settings, but that’s a lot to manage.

    So instead, I used other ways to share that may be of help to the some of the readers who have commented asking for ideas:

    1. Plain old email and attachments

    Using a traditional mail client with groups is an easy way to share photos or videos. Alternatively, using something like MailChimp or other email services can make it even easier if you want to manage different groups.

    2. Dropbox or similar

    One of the easiest to have something that’s easy to share and manage is via Dropbox or similar. You can share links via email or Mailchimp, etc. The advantage is that it’s easy to manage what is shared and modify or expire the share just by adding or removing files. Downside is that people are getting links to files and thus have to download them. Also, it’s not quite as easy to share “what’s new” unless you create new folders.

    3. Host your own.

    I use a Synology Diskstation which is primarily there to be a storage and backup option, but it happens to have some pretty nice photo and video sharing software built right-in. Using DynDNS to get a URL that redirects home and to the Synology diskstation, I can send links that bring viewers to a gallery that is viewable in web browsers, obviating the issue with dropbox of just seeing a list of files. Privacy is very granular and can be based on individuals, groups, or public.

    4. Photostream – My brother just had a baby and is using the Photostream. It’s very convenient and awesome, but as someone else commented, no videos.

    5. Text messaging – great for sharing with small groups of people

    These are all less convenient than FB and do require some effort. That means in real life, not everything I think I want to post makes it. In some ways that’s great. Time is a pretty good editor, and what seemed like an awesome post at the moment may look kinda lame later and not worth the effort to share.

    Granted, any of the above methods still don’t ensure anonymity or privacy, but it strikes a balance I can live with. I think it fairly decently protects my daughters image from just being “out there” for search engines and web crawlers and creepy people. Pretty much anything can be hacked or will be hacked, so I don’t mean to say the above methods are completely protective. But I think it prevents easy, casual viewing of images by people who aren’t invited.

    Bhavesh Patel

  13. Very interesting reading (comments as well). The issue of privacy today seems to be between sharing those people and things we are proud of and hiding those same people and things from some future inquisition or worse.

    I wonder if say 100 years ago, you had had the resources to be a publisher of a well read and regarded newspaper. And, if in those days, your children had done something you were very proud of. Would you have published that, and if available, photographs to go with it? I consider that to be the best analogy to current social media posting. I think that if you were interested in sharing photos privately with your extended family and friends, you might have had copies made and mailed to them privately in addressed envelopes. With the former, you could expect both positive and perhaps negative public responses. In the latter, you would have no real control over who your recipients showed the correspondence.

    At this point, I think there’s still a bit of a jury out on publicly exposing every aspect of our lives. Not only does it become a prejudicial liability for us, and anyone we expose, but I suspect that privacy may be as much a human condition as sociability is.

  14. Interesting perception and approach Ryan. But it begs the question: is it too late?

    How do you feel knowing that even though you may have removed all of the photos you could, they still exist out there in the Internet, archived and cached and who-knows-whatelse?

    Does that affect you at all?

    • Tanner, a good point and one I thought quite a bit about before making the decision to stop sharing photos of my kids. Archives definitely exist, but caches clear and the bigger archives generally allow you to request removal. I’m not sure if I’ll go that far, as I’m not necessarily looking to remove all traces that I have kids or anything like that. I’m more looking to reach a middle-ground of general privacy, image ownership and ease-of-use life in the digital realm.

  15. This cuts both ways. I follow people who regularly post pictures of their parents and families. Will you have a problem when your kids post a pic or video of you being goofy and saying “My Dad is such a dork!”?

    It has always been true that until a certain age a child’s public identity is controlled by the parent. Child models and actors, among others, must have parental permission. Many of those kids never have a choice in their existence in the public sphere.

    One final note…”deleting” an image from a service might remove it from public view, but that particular arrangement of bits will almost certainly continue to exist somewhere. So, yes, perhaps never sharing is the only true way to control this.

  16. Awwww, how cute, you’ve documented the snowflakeification of your kids. When do you fit them for their own tin foil hats?

  17. I wish my mother-in-law would stop posting pictures of us all. She takes pictures of you when your eating or in your pajamas with bad hair. Anyway, when it comes to my son. He doesn’t mind. As a matter of fact, he will ask if I will post pictures to Facebook. I think it all depends on the kid and your relationship with them.

  18. I always tried to keep pictures of my kids embarrassing away from my blog. So haven’t felt it was a problem. Not sure if my kids agree on my choices, as they aren’t old enough to tell me or argue about the cons.

    On the other hand I can relate to many arguments here to keep them all off the grid too. The post and comments, gave me time for a healthy reflection and since I can’t make my mind up, whether I’m for or against, I decided to hide all kid pictures on my blog. I don’t post my kid pictures on other internet sites/tools, so that ought a do it for now. I might reconsider later, but until then, thanks for the input Ryan and commenters.

    • I was very much on the fence for a good deal of time. Jeremy’s article, linked in the OP, planted the seed; but as I mentioned, I was quite resistant to the idea at first — for many of the reasons outlined in the comments here. It was a bit of a process to get me to make the decision, and like so much about parenting, I can completely understand any parent’s decision not to do as I have done.

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  20. From a sixty year old grandma: We could always go back to snail mailing those photos to the people who really matter. The only risk then is a proud relative showing them to a friend. That friend’s brain won’t be able to store and copy anything. 🙂

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  22. I have tried really hard to not have my children or grand children on the internet. If I do post a picture they are backwards as if they are looking at the beach, or walking down a path… etc. It makes it less identifiable. I also don’t talk much about them not because I don’t want to or don’t love them but it is a right to privacy. My oldest grand daughter age 14 said to me, “did you ask my permission?” wow that was a slap… No I had not and why would I assume she would want ‘something about her life’ to be shared? SHE does put herself out there a LOT and I don’t like it, but I am only grandma and have little to do with that decision. There are too many weird people out there to abuse or use the pictures in a wrong way. We live in a different world.

  23. My son is 12 and I always ask his permission before showing any picture of him on-line. I also don’t share anything he has said or done unless it meets his approval first.

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  28. My daughter was born this week and my husband and I decided months ago that we would be doing the same thing – never posting pictures or even her name online. We did a Google doc and collected information for those of our friends that were interested and emailed photos and information when she was born. We email periodic pictures to family and friends since. We had the same reasoning – we wouldn’t want our baby pictures and embarrassing stories out there for the world to read at will, so why would she?

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  31. Thank you for this article! I have been thinking about this issue since the day I am in the social networks. And still sometimes I fell so proud of my little cutie that I put one or two photos e.g in FB. And…right afterwards I fell guilty. Some say that this is paranoid and photo sharing is a part of modern life style, but I am still against sharing EVERYSTEP. there must be some privacy left.

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  38. It feels like a long time ago when blogs started and I though I could do that, but what about, what do I feel really passionate about, the answer at the time was my family. So I did not start a blog or a web site or anything as I was not about to invade my families privacy for the enjoyment of people i did not know. I toyed with blogger as the author says, to have a restricted family place. It never came off, it felt to much like work. I have posted some pics on google+ and did use Flicker a little just for family but only as the boys have got older and know about it, are okay with it.
    It seems it has rubbed off as they have better ways to spend their time doing than sharing pictures with anonymous viewers. They have a healthy respect for their own privacy and their own person.

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