Will My Decades of Online Oversharing Harm My Kids?
Facebook Memories strikes again: Today's little slice of my heavenly past is an action shot of... shots. Me doing shots, that is. In a tiny dress. A tight, tiny bandage dress. I’m in a nightclub in LA, and my hair looks amazing. Which makes sense, seeing how I was living with a now-celebrity hairstylist at the time. This throwback photo is in stark contrast to my current look: unwashed topknot with several inches of blond roots. I’m also currently rocking maternity leggings.
But aside from the general sadness of being reminded I was once actually pretty fun, I’m now staring at this picture in terror because this is not even the worst of it. I know I've tried to erase all the blackmail material, but how many pictures of me still exist on other people’s social media accounts? On other people’s hard drives?
Unfortunately for me (and millions of other now-adult women), social media arrived just in time for the thrills of adolescence. I can still see the bright-blue AOL CD that arrived during seventh grade; it all went downhill from there. Just a few years later, I created a short-lived and horrible online diary that chronicled a high school relationship involving jail time (his) and emotional long-form poetry (mine). I have had no luck trying to delete it. Then, Facebook arrived in 2004, and my university was given access just in time to make my freshman class the first to already have Facebook profiles the day we set foot on campus.
When I was 14, I found an old family photo album. I was enthralled by the teenage version of my mother; I scoured the pictures for little clues about what she’d really been like. My mom had a couple of boyfriends throughout her school years, and I’d heard a few tales of the mistakes she'd made. But when I saw a photo of a boy I didn’t know hugging my 17-year-old mother, it was both amazing and bizarre: objective proof of a whole life that came before me — one I would never know.
That mystery will never exist for my children. After all, I've been an avid scrapbooker since my early teen years. Once, after a nasty middle school breakup, I wondered if I should remove all evidence of the then-ex-boyfriend. I worried my one-day husband wouldn’t want to see these posed Snow Ball 1999 photos of me with “another man.” Little did I know that a decade later, I would have entire conversations, fights, breakups and makeups logged and time-stamped online.
The most embarrassing part of my online past isn't even the plethora of inappropriate outfits and the make-out sessions with randos. The worst is likely the thousands of status updates, tweets and posts to friends that are either cries for attention, attempts to be witty or — worst of all — actually honest. Hollywood loves to show a grown child finding mom’s diary and discovering a secret that forever changes their view of their mother. What happens when it’s not just a few pages of private ramblings? What about when my kids are faced with the entire social media persona of 19-year-old me?
My generation originated digital oversharing. How will all those posts affect our children? Do my kids really need to know that on July 5, 2007, I was “missing my amazing boyfriend so much” or that on March 3, 2010, I was “too hungover for this shit”?
One day, my kids will start digging. I know what they’ll find. And I’m going to have to tell them some hard truths about their mom. Such as:
"That is a dress; it’s just really short."
"No, that’s not Daddy."
"Mommy just wanted to be liked."
"Mommy just wanted to be loved."
"Mommy thought she could change him."
"Mommy wasn’t thinking."
"Mommy drank too much."
"Glitter was really popular."
"No, you can’t dye your hair purple. I was 20, and I didn’t live at home."
If my mother had Twitter, Facebook and Instagram before I was born, childhood me would have obsessively read every word and found every photo. But who would I have seen? I’m not the same person I was at 25, let alone 17. Would seeing my mother separate from the woman she became have changed my idea of her? Would I have looked at her the same? Trusted her the same?
My advice to fellow millennial parents: Don’t count on the delete button. Not only is everything on many sites (such as Twitter) saved and stored independently; there are also entire sites dedicated archiving pages to be viewed after they are deleted. The Wayback Machine has over 308 billion pages saved already, and it’s not slowing down.
I know I don't plan to let my kids drink underage, wear nearly invisible bikinis or use foul language whenever they like. But that's going to be pretty tough to back up when they find a post of spring break 2006.
It turns out that by choosing — without even thinking too carefully about it — to document and preserve so much of our lives (or at least the lives we imagined/wished/pretended we were living), we’ve limited ourselves. We no longer have the option to forget, to grow away from who we once were or even to change our minds. There’s a detailed record out there to be called to the stand as evidence and witness at any moment. The best we can do as parents is be prepared to stand trial.