Below is an excerpt from The Collective, Poynter’s newsletter by journalists of color for journalists of color and our allies. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox two Wednesdays each month.
Children are great. I have a few of them myself.
Fatherhood, in my opinion, kind of rules! But nobody tells you when you are in the bliss of imminent parenthood, that they mess up your brain.
Becoming a parent creates long-term consequences (but worth it!) that new parents rarely understand or consider. Especially in the first two years, the brain fog stemming from a long list of new responsibilities, lack of sleep and sudden change in lifestyle can lead to bad decisions. Worse, it can lead to bad decisions that you weren’t even in your right mind to make at the time.
And if you are someone who writes for a living, this can be an especially dangerous time to put stuff out into the world. The rush of endorphins that babies bring makes you want to shout from the virtual rooftops: “Look at my kid! They are special! I made this!”
But I’m here to tell you, on the other end of new parenthood — my daughters are now 12 and 14 — that you need to stop and think about how much you want kids to be exposed online and in the content you create, whether it’s stories you write or images and videos you post.
For journalists of color, there’s a whole other set of layers to consider: By putting your kids online, are you making them vulnerable for targeted harassment? Are you allowing them to be more identifiable for hackers, scammers, data collectors and identity thieves? And most disturbingly: Can hate groups, or even just disgruntled jerks in your area, use information you share about your children to get to you?
Sounds paranoid, right?
Ten years ago, when my kids were 2 and 4, I would have completely agreed with you. I posted photos of them online. I used their names in personal blog posts, tweets and articles for the newspaper where I worked. I did it with nary a thought to what effect that might have or what danger I might be inviting.
Things have changed
The climate for journalists has changed dramatically. In the U.S., violence against journalists has risen dramatically, particularly after a former president declared practicing journalists “enemy of the people” in 2017.
The stakes are even higher for journalists of color and women, who get hated on for writing about issues related to race and gender. This is not a uniquely American problem; it’s a growing global crisis.
And it’s not unthinkable that children and entire families can be secondary targets for those who seek to harm journalists, as happened in January when bomb threats were made that apparently targeted the families of Polish journalists.
Couple this information with a 339% rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and it begins to feel like a dangerous public environment in which to invite attention to your kids.
In 2016, an incident in which schoolchildren chanted “build the wall” on a public school bus started to give me pause about putting my daughters in the spotlight, at least until that year’s election had passed.
I became more selective about posting photos of my kids. I began to ask my daughters before I made any mention of them in a social media post and consulted with their mom on any article I wrote where they’d be included.
For me, the pandemic woke me up to some of the dangers I had been ignoring or rationalizing.
My own community, a fairly small town in Central Texas between Austin and San Antonio, hosted downtown Trump Train rallies and QAnon-fueled “Save the Children” protests. Online in local Facebook groups and within the town, where Trump flags still fly, locals were carrying water for a far-right movement that was hostile to journalists, anyone who favors humane treatment of immigrants and especially anyone who dared to suggest that COVID should be taken seriously.
For me, this laid-back tubing-and-German-sausage-festival town suddenly had a much less welcoming vibe.
Parents have different strategies for handling their kids online. Some use a nickname for their kids or only a first initial instead of their full name. (I’ve always wondered if that’s much identity protection.) I’ve seen parents blur faces in photos of their young kids.
Some parents will share photos or stories on social media but only on accounts that are private or friends-only.
I used to think that the enormous volume of photos and posts about kids that parents put online was the best deterrent; your own kids’ stuff would just be lost in that vast ocean.
But I’ve come around in recent years to believe that kids shouldn’t grow up with an internet profile already built around them, out of their control. And I’ve become convinced that being a journalist of color with your family life displayed online is riskier than I would have imagined when my kids were little and social media was in its infancy.
Have conversations with your parenting partner, your own parents or anyone involved in raising your kids whom you trust about these issues and set some firm boundaries.
Stick to those boundaries. Don’t let an overzealous editor convince you to use unobscured photos of your kids for a story if that’s outside your boundaries.
Don’t turn your kids into content without considering a worst-case scenario. And when your kids are old enough to understand what publishing things online really means (10-12 is a good time for this, I think), include them in these conversations, and ask them what they would like you to do. If they are not comfortable having their image or stories about their lives shared online, stop immediately. In fact, consider deleting old posts and photos that your kids don’t want out there.
Sure, there’s no way to completely scrub things off the internet once you put them out there, but deleting them from social media accounts or old blog posts at least makes them harder to find.
Most important, as my kids have gotten old enough to be aware of their online presence, I’ve tried to teach them about the dangers that exist, while preserving some of the magic of discovery that the online world offers. It’s less helicopter parenting and more about trusting that I’ve given them enough guidance to be less vulnerable online.
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The Collective is supported by the TEGNA Foundation.