Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He is senior academic adviser, at the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Here’s a simple guideline: don’t post photos and videos of your kids online without their consent. If you can’t follow that rule – and let’s be honest, all of us parents want to share cute pictures of our babies – at least don’t post moments from your children’s worst day. Even if they might not object, they’ll probably hate you in a decade.
Right now, a viral video of a 9-year-old Australian boy named Quaden Bayles, who has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, is circulating around the world. His mother took the video as her son sat in the back seat of a car and posted it online. It’s heartbreaking. He buries his face in the car seat. He cries uncontrollably. He asks for a knife so he can kill himself. His mother tells the camera that her son has, in fact, previously attempted suicide. “This is what bullying does,” she says, with aching emotion. “Can you please educate your children, your families, your friends?”
Over 20 million views on Facebook later, the video has prompted celebrities to share messages of support, and a GoFundMe raised more than $440,000 for a trip to Disneyland. The story seems like it has at least something of a happy ending, in this respect.
But there is something else to be considered here. However loving the intention behind posting this video was (and I can well understand this mother’s desperation), the fact is that for the rest of the boy’s life his name will likely always be associated with it. What’s more, the viral video is likely to encourage other parents to try to emulate it, continuing to break down the privacy rights of children. Just because we have the ability to share videos of our kids with the rest of the world, doesn’t mean we should give in to our impulses. There has to be a better way to seek support or fight bullying without compromising our children’s privacy.
The first generation of kids who were born in the age of camera phones and social media platforms, like Instagram or Facebook live, where this one was posted (arguably the core tools of oversharing parenting – or “sharenting”) are reaching their teens. In The Atlantic last year, Taylor Lorenz reported on the complicated emotional reactions of teens and tweens who realize that their whole lives have been documented and posted online without their consent.
On Reddit, one poster who says that he or she is the child of an Instagram influencer wrote about wearing hoodies printed with phrases like “No photos,” “no videos,” and “I do not consent to be photographed” in protest. This is an extreme case, but it represents the bigger problem of growing up with constantly camera-ready parents.
For people who have disabilities, though, the problem is especially poignant, because society frequently sends a message to them that they do not have the right to control their bodies. Children with disabilities – more so than children who don’t have disabilities – are placed in complicated bureaucratic, educational, and medical systems that encourage compliance with authority and conformity to the norms of non-disabled society, rather than asserting agency and autonomy. Adults with disabilities also face having their picture taken without consent – sometimes as “inspiration porn” that objectifies the person with the disability in order to make the viewer feel good – or for some other reason that has nothing to do with the wishes or well-being of the person being photographed. As Rebecca Cokley writes in Rewire, “For people from marginalized groups, bodily autonomy is often treated as a luxury.”
Parents with autistic kids too frequently post videos of their child’s meltdowns, forever digitally associating the kid’s name or image with a moment of loss of control. Sure, the parents may be turning to a community for help, just as the mom in Australia needed help, but we have to build systems to support families like theirs, and mine, without creating a permanent record of despair that our children will have to struggle with forever.
Sharing trauma without consent creates the conditions to replicate that trauma long into the future – it can expose someone to additional cruelty or serve as a disturbing and lingering reminder of that difficult moment. After all, it’s almost guaranteed that children will grow up and Google themselves at some point. Every child has the right to control his or her image and choose what to keep private. We have to break this cycle.
My son has Down syndrome and is autistic. He’s had his bad moments. I’ve had my bad moments as a parent too, when I’ve felt lost and unhappy and unsure how to best support him. On the other hand, he loves to be seen. When he dances at dinner or sings the Spiderman theme song, he grabs my phone and asks me to take a video.
Sometimes, when I’m doing the dishes, he’ll walk across the kitchen, put his hand on my shoulder until I stop to look at him, and say, “Me!” He wants a witness to his joy. He wants you to see him. But every time I hit send or share, I think, how will he feel when he’s 16, 26, or 36? What is his digital legacy and will he be happy with me when he looks back? I hope so.
Children have a right to privacy and bodily autonomy. Meanwhile, this brave new world has given parents the tools to document every moment of their children’s lives, and project it out to the merciless world. I’m glad this Australian child is getting the support he needs. I don’t blame the mother for making a desperate plea to the world to stop bullying.
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If you were moved by the video, please investigate what your school, church, office, and other communities are doing to create a more inclusive world and more specifically, to stop bullying. Let’s all work to build a world where it doesn’t take viral videos to achieve positive outcomes for children.
In the meantime, remember that your kids are going to grow up. They will Google their names. You want them to be happy with what they find. So please stop sharing photos and videos of your child’s worst moments on the internet.