Teens today, and the children who have come after, have never really known the world before social media. It seems that the government of Canada is even more acutely aware of this problem than we are.
Kids these days have some pretty damned serious things to worry about, and these have ever been top-of-mind as my son has grown older and has asked for access to Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. People who have had their reputations trashed online have little in the way of recourse. The internet is forever.
In examining the extremes cases, we forget the very ordinary situations that will be our fault.
On Friday, The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released a draft report on the OPC's position on online reputation. Item C on this draft report was "The special case of youth."
Some of us - myself included - put our children in the public sphere. Our jobs may require it. Or perhaps we are just trying to share baby photos, gripes, milestones, and stories about funny things they do. Perhaps it is public. Perhaps it is only within a circle of friends and acquaintances.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that it is there. One day it might be held against our children by others. Or perhaps they may find it and it will cause them pain and embarrassment.
None of us have escaped childhood without at least an embarrassing story or ten. But we will never have trouble with our embarrassments being forgotten. Our bad photos will be lost. Our story-telling relatives will die. Facebook, on the other hand, conveniently reminds us every year on the anniversary of the date we shared the story about our kid dropping trou on a busy street at age three.
The OPC report says: Finally, in the current social media age, we note that it is not uncommon for information about children and youth to be posted by their parents. A “cute” anecdote or photo may – at the time, or in the future - be highly embarrassing or even harmful to the child or youth, and youth have indicated a desire for greater control of this information. Thus, we recommend that Parliament also consider providing youth with some ability, upon reaching the age of majority, to request and obtain removal of online information posted about them by their parents or guardians who until then had substitute decision-making power. Such an ability will, of course, need to be crafted in such a way as to be practical and respect the expressive rights of the parent.
The OPC is right to recommend this. No doubt they will get some latitude for antics they performed as young kids, but that doesn't mean our children want their future employers to have access to photos of "brace face" and videos of them doing "the pee-pee dance."
They must absolutely have the right to start their adulthood with as clean a slate… as possible.
Regardless of what the government decides to do, each of us should consider whether social media is the right place to share any information about our children, whether it seems harmful or embarrassing now or not. While we shouldn't necessarily ban the sharing of baby photos, we should be crystal-clear on the fact that children do grow up and will eventually have thoughts, feelings, and opinions of their own. We should make sure to respect them from the very moment they begin to understand the implications of what we do to their online reputation.
This is an especially important conversation to have right now. It would be hypocritical of us to support the right to a person's consent in the wake of #MeToo and then deny the right to consent to our children because it doesn't involve their sexuality. Privacy and reputation is an extremely personal, intimate thing and its violations have proven in some cases to be devastating to children, as a terrible growing body count can attest.
Of course, as the guardian of a minor child, we must have the responsibility of making informed consent on their behalf when they are unable to reasonably make it for themselves. But even at the age of six and seven, my son expressed concern about my using images of him online. Sometimes he said he did not want me to include photos or videos of him in my posts, and since he began to express his feelings to me on the subject, I have been scrupulous in obtaining his consent ahead of time.
Even so, one day, he may decide to withdraw that consent, and I believe he should have that right. The how of it troubles me a little.
But that should be our problem to solve. Not his.