My baby pictures and videos are the standard compendium of embarrassment. I was photographed waddling in nothing but a diaper, filmed smearing food all over my face instead of eating it. But I’m old enough that the kompromat is safe in the confines of physical photo albums and VHS tapes in my parents’ attic. Even my earliest digital activity—posting emotional MySpace photo captions and homemade music videos—took place in the new and unsophisticated internet of the early 2000s, and has, blissfully, been lost to time. I feel relief whenever I’m reminded of those vanished artifacts, and even more so when I see pictures and videos of children on the internet today, who won’t be so lucky.
In December, I watched a TikTok of two young sisters named Olivia and Millie opening Christmas presents. When the large boxes in front of them turned out to contain two suitcases, Millie, who appeared to be about 4 years old, burst into tears. (Luggage, unsurprisingly, was not what she wanted from Santa.) Her parents scrambled to explain that the real presents—tickets to a four-day Disney cruise—were actually inside the suitcases, but Millie was too far gone. She couldn’t stop screaming and crying. Nine million strangers watched her breakdown, and thousands of them commented on it. “This is a great ad for birth control,” one wrote. (The TikTok has since been deleted.)
Two decades ago, this tantrum would have been just another bit of family lore, or at worst, a home video trotted out for relatives every Christmas Eve. But now, thoughtless choices made years ago—a keg stand photographed, a grocery-store argument taped—can define our digital footprints, and a generation of parents like Millie’s are knowingly burdening their children with an even bigger online dossier.
The children of the Facebook era—which truly began in 2006, when the platform opened to everyone—are growing up, preparing to enter the workforce, and facing the consequences of their parents’ social-media use. Many are filling the shoes of a digital persona that’s already been created, and that they have no power to erase.
Caymi Barrett, now 24, grew up with a mom who posted Barrett’s personal moments—bath photos, her MRSA diagnosis, the fact that she was adopted, the time a drunk driver hit the car she was riding in—publicly on Facebook. (Barrett’s mother did not respond to requests for comment.) The distress this caused eventually motivated Barrett to become a vocal advocate for children’s internet privacy, including testifying in front of the Washington State House earlier this year. But before that, when Barrett was a teen and had just signed up for her first Twitter account, she followed her mom’s example, complaining about her siblings and talking candidly about her medical issues.
Barrett’s audience of younger users are the ones who pointed out the problem, she told me. Her internet friends started “reaching out to me, being like, ‘Hey, maybe you should take this down,’” she said. Today’s teens are similarly wary of oversharing. They joke on TikTok about the terror of their peers finding their parents’ Facebooks. Stephen Balkam, the CEO of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute, says that even younger children might experience a “digital coming-of-age” and the discomfort that comes with it. “What we’ve seen is very mature 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds sitting down with their parents, going, ‘Mom, what were you thinking?’” he told me.
In the United States, parental authority supersedes a child’s right to privacy, and socially, we’ve normalized sharing information about and images of children that we never would of adults. Parents regularly divulge diaper-changing mishaps, potty-training successes, and details about a child’s first menstrual period to an audience of hundreds or thousands of people. There are no real rules against it. Social-media platforms have guidelines for combatting truly inappropriate content—physical abuse of minors, child nudity, neglect, endangerment, and the like. But uploading non-abusive content can be damaging, too, according to kids whose lives have been painstakingly documented online.
For parents, posting can be hard to quit. Views, likes, and comments offer a form of positive reinforcement to parents, whose work is largely invisible and often thankless. “The most tangible proof of our work is children themselves,” Sara Petersen, the author of the book Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture, told me. “And sometimes it’s really just nice to post a cute photo and have 10 or 12 people say, ‘So cute.’”
The likes and comments are one thing. Money is another. Families who document their lives intimately on YouTube or TikTok can amass large audiences, sponsorships, and ad revenue. Currently, no state or federal laws entitle the children of these family vloggers to any of the money earned, although, as The Washington Post recently reported, such legislation has been introduced in states including Washington and Illinois.
Some new parents feel there’s no excuse for subjecting children to invasive public scrutiny. Kristina, a 34-year-old mother from Los Angeles who asked to be identified by only her first name for privacy reasons, has posted just a handful of photos of her daughter, and covers her face in all of them. “We didn’t really want to share her image publicly, because she can’t consent to that,” she told me. Many other adults don’t respect Kristina’s decision. “I had someone basically insinuate, was there something wrong with my daughter? Because I wasn’t sharing her,” she said.
Even if parents have decided to keep their children off social media, they’re not the only ones with phones. Kristina says she’s had to ask friends and family to take down photos they’ve posted of her daughter online. Every person on the street, every parent at a birthday party, has their own camera in their pocket, and the potential to knowingly or unknowingly violate her family’s boundary.
Barrett says she’s still feeling the effects of her mother’s decade of oversharing. When Barrett was 12, she says she was once followed home by a man who she believes recognized her from the internet. She was later bullied by classmates who latched on to all the intimate details of her life that her mother had posted online, and she ultimately dropped out of high school.
She and her mom have no relationship now, in large part because of the wedge her mother’s social-media habits put between them. Even with other people, Barrett says, she’s extremely private and can be paranoid about interacting. “I get afraid to even tell my friends or my fiancé something, because in the back of my mind I’m constantly like, Is this gonna be weaponized against me on the internet?”