My daughter just turned 13. Now, there is a whole list of things I’m not prepared for, and this is definitely high up on the list. She’s becoming a teenager and I feel like I need to prepare all of us for her upcoming participation in having and maintaining a presence online. Part of that preparation is figuring out how to parent in the age of social media and online activity. So I thought I’d take a moment to sit down and put our collective thoughts down on how we’re approaching this as a family.
I suppose I should start out with where I stand on social media and online behavior. As a platform, I’m somewhat ambivalent about social media. I’m not generally a “social butterfly” and I certainly don’t derive any value with comparing myself to everyone else’s highlight reel. I do acknowledge it however; I enjoy the small circle of friends I keep and I appreciate (mostly) their insight, humor, and friendship (sometimes the politics can become a little noisy, but we’ve all encountered that in the age of Twitter leadership). I love my creative friends dearly, and I’ll never have relationships outside of family that are deeper and more impactful than my shipmates from the Navy who I maintain contact with some 30 years or so after serving.
That being said, as the parent two girls, I do have to acknowledge the power that social media and online platforms have over a population that’s younger, more impressionable, and lacking the overall experience in life that helps build a filter, or inoculate you, to the pitfalls of judging yourself against your peers (who may be better at presenting their optimal life).
So to start, when our kids were born, we exercised some basic rules that I think were helpful for the first dozen or so years. We (my wife and I) agreed to never post pictures of our kids online. There were several reasons for this. First and foremost, those pictures aren’t necessarily ours to post. They contain images of people who will forever have them online following them around, regardless of how effective we are at “locking them down”. I’d like you to imagine what your childhood would’ve been like if your friends had the ability to dig a little and uncover pictures of you at your most embarrassing. Awkward photos without context. Private images of you that you wouldn’t want friends (or “frenemies”) finding and being able to share with an audience wider than originally intended. That would’ve sucked, wouldn’t it? So we’ve taken great care to NOT post images of our children that we don’t feel like we have explicit permission to post (even though they’re our kids). I feel very strongly about the ownership of your own personal identity. I don’t think that I have permission to share images of my kids that will follow them around long after they’re 18 and have the right to decide what they want to share. I’ve effectively stolen that from them, and that’s not cool. Secondly, I understand the EULA that most social media sites adhere to, and until there’s federal privacy intervention, social platforms’ implied “ownership” of everything that I post on social media means that I’m effectively giving up my children’s likeness to people who don’t have my (or my children’s) best interest in mind. Again, NOT cool. I won’t give that up for anything. I’m a grown adult. I can make those decisions about relinquishing ownership of my likeness, but I’m not comfortable doing that for others who haven’t had the right or opportunity to weigh in.
We don’t post personal information. Period. People who we’re close to know our children’s names and basic personal information about them, but I’ll never publicly post where they’re going to school, what field trips they’re on, what events they’re attending. That shit is private and will remain so as long as those kids live under our roof. Again, this seems like basic common sense to me… your mileage may vary. They’re not allowed to use their real names when joining online communities (we’re a gaming family with Nintendo Switches, DSes, Xboxes, and Playstations) and for each of those communities they’ve selected “personas” that don’t contain any personal information. You’re not allowed to use your real name, you’re not allowed to say where you live, etc). You’re also not allowed to “chat” on platforms that allow it. No Roblox chat, no chatting in Minecraft, or Fortnite… you’re not allowed to participate (yet) in YouTube comment chains. You’re basically restricted from interacting with fellow gamers, unless it’s a vetted real-life friend who we personally know and can verify the username. I don’t mind them playing with friends from school, or the neighborhood, but people outside of that? No way, Jose. Off limits. That’s a big one we’ve discussed and everyone is on the same page. That’s a serious one to breach and can result in losing the privilege of playing.
Now those rules have sustained us pretty much for the last dozen or so years, but now we’re hitting some uncharted territory. Now I’ve got to help someone else manage and maintain a digital presence online in a way that prepares her for a future where privacy is a suggestion and oversharing is a way of life. Am I comfortable with it? Well, not entirely, but I’m gonna work hard to inoculate her to some of the bigger pitfalls and arm her with a little basic rucksack of social media awareness and a framework for her to participate… but not over-participate.
So with her 13th birthday, I decided I’d give her a platform and an outlet. She’s creative and has an innate desire to “make things”, and I couldn’t be more proud of that. She loves to draw, she loves to write, and she’s doing both at a pace and volume that far exceeds any creative endeavors that I undertook at her age… and I want nothing more than to encourage and promote that. So I created a blog for her, and bought her a domain name of her own. She has a little nickname that she’s started using online for things like school related bulletin boards and online gaming and I chose that for several reasons. First, it’s not her real name, and isn’t even a variation of that. Second, it allows us all to create a barrier between her and her audience, whoever they are. And finally, it gives her a little more “freedom” to pursue thoughts and ideas without them being explicitly attached to her. She’s thirteen. Her ideas and thoughts and opinions are new and fresh, and she’s allowed to be malleable at her age without committing to an ideology and I like the idea that she has the freedom to explore her world in a way that doesn’t commit her for the rest of her life with having to explain or make excuses for any opinion she had in the past, right or wrong.
Additionally, her blog is hers. Anything she uploads or posts is her Intellectual Property. She’s not relinquishing any rights or ownership to anything she creates or posts. I think this is a super valuable lesson for her to begin to understand in an age where Intellectual Property ownership is a real thing, and where social platforms are deriving a large part of their value from “owning” their user base. What comes out of her head is hers, and nobody else’s. She’s allowed to own it all, the good, the bad, the embarrassing, the brilliant. If she posts images (and the restriction is NO pictures of you, or your friends, no selfies, and no pictures that contain personal information) then they’re hers and nobody else has the right to ownership or to monetize them in any way that she doesn’t control.
From an executional standpoint, I manage and maintain her online presence. I’m the administrator of her blog, and I get to see what she’s posting and control the look and feel. We work together to arrive at a design that she loves, and she’s an “author” with the appropriate user role that allows her to post, updated, edit, and delete posts, but that’s it. She can’t add other social platform integrations, etc. We’ve discussed allowing instagram integration in the future, but we’re going to walk before we run.
Is all this going to work? I honestly have no idea, but I’m not about to bury my head in the sand and hope that she uses her 13 year old brain and make the right decisions about establishing a presence online. I’m going to treat it just like everything else we’ve done and I’m going to give her access to the tools, provide some training wheels, and monitor how she proceeds before deciding when to pull the training wheels off, and how far she’s allowed to ride. I’m going to be pragmatic, but cautious, and I’m going to make sure she understands her ownership over her data and intellectual property before we cut her loose on the wild west world of social media and online communities. We’re going to start with her own personal platform that we (together with her) control and manage that allows her the flexibility to explore and create without giving up data and privacy.
We’re all new to this. None of this existed a decade ago, and as we all collectively, as parents, work on managing this brave new world, I’m focusing on developing an awareness of privacy and personal accountability that will serve her far beyond her teenage years. I don’t suspect we’re going to get it 100% right, but working in technology and data, I feel like I’m putting together a framework that gets us closer than we’ve ever been.