Sarah Kendzior has a thoughtful piece on a topic I’ve mentioned before: does a mother’s right to tell her story or blog about her life trump the privacy rights of her child? The issue recently came to the forefront again after Sarah responded critically to a blog post called “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” that had gone viral. I had winced as I had read Liza Long’s post and wondered how her son might feel years from now if he sees what she wrote about him, but I had understood what she was trying to do. I had also winced at Sarah’s response, because I had the feeling that she had never walked a mile in the shoes of a mother of a child with special needs.
On December 19, the Federal Trade Commission passed a law increasing privacy safeguards on children’s mobile apps and websites. Under the new law, websites and apps will have to get parental permission to collect photos, videos and other information that children post online.
“Parents, not social networks or marketers, will remain the gatekeepers when it comes to their children’s privacy,” explained Jim Steyer, head of the child media advocacy group Common Sense Media.
This is all well and good, but a question remains: Who will protect children from their parents?
It’s an important question in a world where the Internet never forgets. And the risks for children who have mental health challenges may be even greater. Sarah writes:
To reveal the personal struggles of a mentally ill minor online – in particular, to paint him as unstable and violent – is a form of child abuse. Not only does it violate the bond between a child and the person who is supposed to protect him, it can lead to the child being mocked, attacked and shunned by his own community when he is already vulnerable.
Moreover, the damage is permanent. Even if a mentally ill child gets the help he needs, even if he changes his behaviour, the words of his mother will follow him. When he applies to college, when he looks for a job, he will not be able to escape the nightmarish portrayal painted by his mother, the person who knew him best, the person who sold him out.
Her statement is somewhat harsh, but it is worth considering. Parents of special needs children often lack adequate supports offline. Writing about their day or the challenges they and their children face is an outlet that can bring them emotional support – and helpful treatment ideas – that they may not have available otherwise. Even a “vent” blog serves a function if it helps the mother express frustration that might otherwise be expressed by physically punishing her child. And many parents of special needs children write with the fervent hope that somehow – if they can just write well enough – others will understand their child and perhaps be more accepting of children who are not like their peers. And maybe, just maybe, other mothers will not look at them with disdain or as failures because their child does not behave like other children.
As a mental health professional and author, and as a mother who raised two special needs children, I understand both sides of the arguments about non-commercial mommy bloggers. Sharing real stories can increase public awareness and empathy and provide a forum for support. But my children are now old enough to think and give consent or deny consent if I wanted to share their stories online. For most mommy bloggers, the children are too young to grasp or have input into what their mothers decide to share about them and how it might harm them in the future.
So where is the balance? Ideally, I’d say blog anonymously and don’t use real names or location information. Realistically, though, I know that even with pseudonyms, some children’s stories are so unique that they could still be identified and named, leaving a digital trail that might harm their chances in the future.
Maybe part of the solution is for mommy bloggers to ask themselves a few simple questions before they write anything about their children:
1. What am I trying to accomplish here?
2. Is there any future risk to my child by sharing this information about him or her?
3. Is there any other way to accomplish my goal without disclosing private information about my child?
Of course, the above doesn’t really apply to mommy bloggers who are blogging for commercial gain. To those bloggers, I’d just ask, “What price do you put on your child’s privacy and future or on your future relationship with them? If someone comes along and archives everything you write about your child and you cannot not get it removed from the Internet, would it still be worth it?”
Image credit: PhotoDisc