Photo: Courtesy of Nora McInerny, illustration by Stephanie Han Kim
I was born in the ’80s, and my parents did their best to document my young life. They stood around flapping Polaroids in the air, waiting to see if I’d actually looked at the camera when they’d asked me to. They dropped rolls of film at the drugstore and hoped for the best. Sometimes they even ordered doubles and got twice the number of out-of-focus photos to place in boxes in the basement.
But today’s children are products of the social age. A world where baby albums have been replaced by Facebook albums. A world where every wedding hashtag is followed by a baby hashtag.
Ours was #Ralphiegrams, and it was born just after my first son, Ralph. His amazing nerd of a father, my husband, Aaron, had an idea: A hashtag to track his life that would use IFTTT.com to automatically send any photo of Ralph posted by anyone on Instagram to a Tumblr blog we set up. It would be a digital baby book, passively populated by his lazy parents and all the people who love him. It worked brilliantly because our friends and family used it religiously.
When Ralph was a baby, I had a few hundred Instagram followers, and Aaron had brain cancer. Yes, this story is going to take a major bummer turn in just a few moments. I was writing about our life—as a family of three with a side of cancer—and my social media following grew along with my blog’s readership.
After Aaron died, I wrote a book, and my following grew much larger. Photos that once garnered a few dozen likes were now getting hundreds, and people in our hometown of Minneapolis started to recognize us when we were out and about.
That takes some getting used to for anyone, but as the adult with the Instagram account, I have the necessary context for these interactions. Ralph, now four, doesn’t understand why strangers know his name, and he responds in about the right way for this sort of thing: by hissing like a cat. He doesn’t know what Instagram is, but he knows he is his own person, and when he yells “No photos!” I put my phone down.
A year ago, Ralph was an only child. But I fell in love again (yay!) with a lovely man with two lovely children of his own (double yay!), and that man and I had a baby (triple yay!). My new love’s kids are 10 and 15—a tween and a teen, born when we were still fumbling with digital cameras and blogs were just for weirdos. They’ve grown up alongside social media but not within it, and I realized immediately that if I were to bring them in, they—and their biological parents—should have input on how and when.
My modest social media infamy intrigues and baffles them: Who exactly is following me, and, like, why? What on earth makes me interesting?? I don’t have answers to those questions, but I do have an answer for how I respect their autonomy when it comes to social media: I don’t share their faces and I let them see any photo that mentions them before it goes up. The veto power is theirs, and so is their story.
I have always known that the life I am sharing online is Ralph’s, so I have rules. Not just the basics—no nudes, duh—but I’m pretty determined to respect his experience. I don’t post embarrassing toilet or tub photos. I don’t share his entire life, just glimpses from time to time. I post things truly understanding that one day he will be free to create his own version of his digital self, or reject the whole thing.
Check out Breakfast Television's new podcast Moms in the Middle. Episode 3: To Share or Not to Share?
I share photos of my son online for the same reason we all share photos of ourselves, our children and our lattes. Our feeds and hashtags replace our diaries, our photo albums, our baby books. This is our new way of documenting our existence, our way of leaving our mark on the world, however small and temporary it may be.
Now, I am no celebrity, even by looser Internet standards. I have about 18,000 Instagram followers, not a million, and my child is not a Kardashian-West or a Jolie-Pitt. My family is but a blip in the digital universe, but even blips are subject to the opinions of strangers. I don’t worry that my social media habits jeopardize my son’s safety, but plenty of parents do, and those feelings are valid. Each of us is struggling to find the right Child-to-Internet Ratio, and we’re all just guesstimating. I have friends who share every breath their child takes, others with private Instagram accounts devoted to each of their kids, and still others who have never and will never post a photo of their child on the Internet. None of us knows what we are doing, and none of us has it right.
The best we can do is whatever feels OK for us and our children now, and reserve the right to change our minds, our habits and our privacy settings.