September 11, 2013

The Counter Argument to Back to Blogging Basics

Shortly after I posted my Back to Blogging Basics piece, an article from slate about the dangers of posting photos of children online started popping up in my news feed. Although her central thesis is similar to my post, I found myself disagreeing with Ms. Webb’s piece. Judging from my news feed, I wasn’t the only one to feel this way.

The problem with Webb’s article is it has the same this is my parent philosophy and anything else is causing PERMANENT AND IRREVOCABLE HARM attitude that so many parenting articles have. What really frustrates me about these articles is that we don’t actually know, scientifically speaking, what, if any, many of these individual decisions actually have. Or worse, we have theories that sound valid, but turn out to be actually wrong. These parenting articles remind me of this PhD comic on scientific literature in the media. A similar analogy can be made on the parenting literature and social media.

I’m not qualified to talk about many of the mommy wars topics. I can talk about Nicki and what seemed to work for us, but it’s always hard to tell if we managed to get past some issue because of something I did, or despite it. A sample size of 1 (or 2 or 3) does not make for a very good study. What I am qualified to talk about is the internet, and I do know a thing or two about user studies. So with that introduction, let me explain why she (and I) may be wrong.

Claim: Sharing stories about your child could harm them for life.

Webb doesn’t give any evidence from this claim, but I did share a study from Kansas State that showed that knowledge that a mom is a working mom can negatively impact the perception of the child. There are two main issues with using this study to make sweeping claims: (1) the child in the video was 4; and (2) the participants in the study were college students and thus hardly a representative sample. Presumably they did not have much experience as parents, which may have also impacted their perceptions.

While it’s reasonable to assume the negative impact on impression of the child extend beyond the age of four, it’s difficult to imagine it extending all the way to adult hood. Adults are generally perceived to be autonomous. Once we reach adulthood we’re usually measured by actual achievements and qualifications, rather than potential. Yes, recruiters have scoured the internet for digital dirt, and have turned away applicants based on their online profile, but they’re looking for inappropriate photos, and drinking. Absent from that list are tales of poopsplosions, and whether an applicant was breastfeed or bottle fed. It’s possible that these aspects might affect the recruiter’s subconscious opinion, but not very likely and certainly not proven.

Claim: Once it’s on the internet it never goes away.

I plan scaring my daughter with this line when we first allow her online, but it’s not 100% accurate. You should never post anything online you’d be embarrassed if your mother read. That includes on private, password protected sites. Such sites can have security flaws. Besides, a privacy model that can be thwarted by someone in your friend’s list copying and pasting your information is not one to be counted on. Once something is out on the web, and on someone else’s website, you loose control over it and the ability to delete it. But – and this is a big but – the internet does eventually forget. Websites get abandoned, domains are re-purchased by someone else, new websites are setup replacing old.

The way back machine attempts to archive the internet, but even it can’t keep a copy of everything. Think about how vast the internet is. The way back machine currently has 364 billion URLs. In 2008, Google had already indexed 1 trillion (1 Trillion = 10004, or 1,000 billion). Yes, five years ago Google had 3X as many URLs as the Way Back Machine has today. Assuming an average of 1kb of information per URL, that’s 1 petabyte (10005) of disk space required to store a copy of the web as it was five years ago! And that’s not including the space required to save all those embarrassing childhood photos.

The more websites that pick up your story (and the more popular those websites are) the longer it will take for the internet to forget. Get reblogged in the national news, and it may be decades. For most of us, though, the internet will likely forget about our posts in a few years. The way back machine has already forgotten many of my old websites and blog posts.

Claim: Sharing stories about your children will effect their self image/self esteem

The internet is still relatively young. Google is only 15 years old, Facebook is 9 (and has only been available to the public for 7 years). While that may be an eternity in internet time, it’s hardly any in human development time. There are no studies about growing up ‘on facebook’ because no one has had a chance to grow up on facebook yet.

We could be completely backwards in our thinking about the effects of social media sharing. A few years ago a friend and I were discussing the trend of everyone in elementary schools winning an award (best smile, loudest laugh, etc). I explained to her the goal was to promote self esteem; to send the message ‘there is something special about you’. She thought for a moment “I would think not winning an award would be better for a child’s self esteem. That way the child learns they don’t need to win to be okay.” It’s plausible that sharing an embarrassing story erodes some of the trust our children have in us the same way not winning an award erodes confidence. Or perhaps, sharing said embarrassing stories and showing that we continue to love our kids is one way we can teach them that they don’t need to be perfect. Neither theory has been tested. Neither theory has been proven or disproven.

We don’t know the impact of blogging, facebooking, and instagramming because those activities are just too new. We can hypothesize all we like, but hypothesizing isn’t the same as knowing.

Claim: Someone is out there, lurking, waiting to take advantage of what you share, and use it for nefarious purposes.

In Webb’s article she gave an anecdote of a Facebook friend who posted a photo not realizing her street number was visibly. I, too, am no stranger to stumbling upon think kind of personal information. In fact, people have been so cavalier in sharing information without thought in recent years that the please rob me project was started to help show people that one of the pitfalls of public checkins is that they show the internet where you’re not – at home.

While bad things relating to publicizing too much information can and do happen, they happen to a small percentage of people online. Ms Webb’s anecdote didn’t involve anything bad happening to her friend. I’m sure I’m not the only one who stumbled onto those bloggers identities, and nothing bad happened to those bloggers either. ‘Could happen’ is not the same thing as ‘likely will happen’.

Reality

As with any parenting decision there isn’t a single right answer for everyone. There is no one internet presence. There’s no one risk level. There is no one comfort level. Some bloggers with large followings and may feel the need for more caution. Those of us with less of a following (and thus more likely to be forgotten by the internet achieve) may feel freer. Every situation and every personality is different.

I choose to blog about Nicki less today because today that felt like the right choice for us. That may not be the right choice for you, and that’s okay.

I know many a parent who have made a different parenting decisions than I, but none that have come to those decisions lightly or without forethought. It’s that whole ‘permanent and irrevocable harm’ thing.

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  1. […] a side note, I still maintain some of this fear over social media sharing is blown way out of proportion. There are legitimate cases of detrimental over sharing, obviously. Re-punishing a child to capture […]


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