It’s Impossible to Keep Your Baby off the Internet

Hours after a baby is born, its internet presence begins — no matter what we try to do to stop it

The day after my wife delivered our first baby, a photographer knocked on the door of our hospital room and offered to take pictures. We were sleep-deprived, dazed from the realization that everything we once considered “normal” had just been smashed with a sledgehammer, and emotionally speaking, we were puddles of liquid. Of course, we let her in.

Later on, when I looked over the terms of service on the photographer’s company-issued iPad, I noticed that one of the default checked boxes authorized it to use the photos in online marketing materials. Without hesitating, I unchecked it and told the photographer I had done so. “Thanks for even looking that closely,” she said. “No one ever does.”

We felt ready to handle issues like this because we had outlined a plan for our baby’s internet presence — an “internet advance directive” if you will. Early in my wife’s pregnancy, amid one of those horrendous, what-has-our-species-become 2020 news days, we concluded that we needed to “protect” our baby from the internet by keeping them off of it completely. Of course, this would mean no posting baby photos on social media. But it also meant no internet-enabled baby tech and logging no information about our baby online at all.

Any prospect of flawlessly executing such an uncompromising directive was a doomed project from the start, and it immediately disintegrated. The photographer delivered the finalized photos to us by linking us to a password-protected web portal. Secure or not, those photos were online. My wife and I looked at each other in horror, and then acquiesced, thanked her, and used the portal to download the photos to our phones, and sent them to our friends and family via email and text, which we deemed acceptable. We thought we had vowed to prevent any and all overlap of baby and internet, and less than a day after he was born, he was being turned into ones and zeroes anyway.

So we were forced to reevaluate our plan slightly. On some subconscious level, I realized I had imagined my baby shrouded by an Area 51-style bubble of total secrecy, and that was now off the table. But it seems like all the most harrowing news of the past decade — the Snowden leaks, the Facebook-exacerbated Rohingya genocide, and the brain-liquefying mess of contemporary politics to name a few — point to the internet being an unsafe place for anyone, but especially a child.

Still, there’s a case to be made that parents must simply get real and embrace technology. Jordan Shapiro, author of dad-centric nonfiction, wrote in his book about kids and technology, The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, “There will always be people who see what’s new as a threat to the status quo. This is how ingenuity will always be treated.” Perhaps I should be as sanguine as Shapiro. Maybe if I were a parent in the 15th century, I would be, as Shapiro suggests, one of those people who believed Satan lived in the printing press. But somehow I doubt these things are the same. And besides, my child is a baby, and can’t possibly be missing out on much for the time being.

I asked Sara Gaynes-Levy, a writer who has been raising her kids offline and writing about it since about three years ago how internet-free life has worked out for her toddler. “I have not seen any downsides,” Gaynes-Levy told me. “She doesn’t know what the internet is and she doesn’t understand whether or not she’s on Instagram versus her little friends.” That sounds fine.

The statement “the internet is dangerous for children” is sort of an inkblot test, and what kind of parent you are determines what shape you see when you look into the digital morass. If you’re a Liam Neeson in Taken-style parent, you see your child as a precious ruby that the world’s sickos want to snatch away from you, so you’re spending all your time trying to protect your kid from hackers and pedophiles. If you’re a Noam Chomsky-style parent, you’re afraid of the world’s corrupt institutions forcing your child into the mind-control machine, and you’ll want to protect their data and their civil liberties. Finally, if you’re what I’ll call “Optimizers” — parents who either possess, or aspire to, healthy attention spans and good time management, and who thus worry about what might happen if their kids get exposed to the addictive chaos of social media.

If social media is your main concern, it’s probably wise to ask yourself who is supposed to benefit from a posted pic of your infant: you, your baby, or both? Gaynes-Levy, for her part, keeps her kids offline, but still subjects herself to the slings and arrows of online life. “I obviously could choose to not be on social media at all,” she said, “but I actually really, really like Instagram and I connect with my friends on it. I spend a lot of time on it, and I didn’t want to just be a lurker.”

As far as we know, the internet isn’t causing active or direct harm to most of those who’ve grown up with their parents “sharenting.” If the data pointed to social media doing unambiguous, measurable developmental damage, we would probably know by now. And by and large, the rigorous, data-based research, with large sample sizes, and appropriate controls suggests that kids who come in contact with social media are fine. But data isn’t the whole picture.

The scholar who has probably studied this the most is Crystal Abidin, PhD, an anthropologist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, whose research focuses on internet influencers. Her research examines patterns in the lives of extremely online people, and when kids are involved, things get unsettling.

In one analytical paper, Abidin describes a widespread phenomenon among influencer families that she calls “calibrated amateurism,” in which internet-famous children learn at a young age how to craft “contrived authenticity that portrays the raw aesthetic of an amateur.” In other words, children participate in the creation of content that ostensibly documents something real, when in fact, it is calculated to drive audience engagement.

To cite one example of “calibrated amateurism,” an extremely media-savvy grade school-aged girl on YouTube is shown during a piece of “filler” — a non-performative, documentary segment meant to show normal domestic life — and asked whether she likes boys. She immediately objects, saying, “I don’t like boys! I like Netflix… and birds.” The interaction is too contrived to be spontaneous, and demonstrates that aspects of performance are obviously leaking into the young girl’s regular life.

So far, it’s been easy to not post my baby on social media. Step 1: Don’t post baby on social media. That’s it. You’re done. But, like Gaynes-Levy, we’ve had close calls, in which we’ve had to be tyrants, and tell family members that, unfortunately, yes, “the social media thing” is a hard-and-fast rule, and therefore no, you may not post that no matter how cute it is.

But that hardly makes me feel like I’ve “protected” my baby from the worst of the internet’s evils, so my wife and I have also banished “The Internet of Things” from our home. We already didn’t have any voice-activated home assistants, and the always-listening features on our phones are turned off. Perhaps more importantly, our baby monitor is one that communicates with the camera and microphone via old-fashioned FHSS radio rather than Wi-Fi. That means I can’t use my phone to get a live peek at my baby’s crib when I’m standing in line at the bank, but it’s a small price to pay because Wi-Fi baby monitors are notorious for being hacked by weirdos who access their audio and video feeds — and even use the talkback option to speak to people’s kids. One hacker in 2019 said, “Jaden I love you,” to a three-year-old in Seattle. In 2018, another one told a child’s parents “I’m in your baby’s room.”

Honestly, I’m not sure how much actual protection our non-Wi-Fi baby monitor affords. It’s reassuring, but the camera is just a big ugly reminder that every time I take my baby for a walk in public, they get photographed by countless surveillance cameras anyway, and I have no control over what happens to those images. Fortunately, the idea that someone is spying on babies for any reason other than to see if they can do it strikes me as a little dubious. I’m plenty paranoid, but not quite paranoid enough to believe that anyone might actually be browsing for my child as a potential candidate for human trafficking and/or adrenochrome extraction. But better safe than sorry, I suppose.

Perhaps it’s not the weirdos and pedophiles that should worry us the most anyway, because everywhere we go, we practically sweat usable data that can find its way into the hands of anyone who wants to exploit it. Those cameras out in the world — including the ones on other people’s phones — are more dangerous than you might think. Just ask alleged felon Andres Rafael Viola. Viola is an unsympathetic example, but a telling one, having been arrested after investigators at the Department of Homeland Security found him with the help of a new piece of software from Clearview AI, which pinpointed his face in the background of a photo a stranger took and posted to Facebook — and which Clearview analyzed without that Facebook user’s permission. Clearview argues this practice is protected by the First Amendment, though the ACLU begs to differ.

In other words, if my baby’s face is uncovered in public — children under two are not supposed to wear Covid masks, in case you aren’t aware — there might be images out there that are not only finding their way online, but showing up in databases used to literally spy on people.

I’m tempted, as everyone is, to shrug off these millions of tiny intrusions a day. For instance, one of my early failures as the father of an offline baby was to Google baby-related topics in my regular browser. This of course resulted in my being flooded by parenting-related banner ads, like a harmless one from Ad Council featuring a picture of Mufasa and Simba from The Lion King, telling me to “Take time to be a dad today.” It irked me, but I brushed it off. Then I was served a much more alarmist banner ad that was clearly based on some baby health-related searches, peddling information I knew to be misleading. To keep my baby’s information out of these people’s hands, I started searching in an incognito tab with my VPN turned on, unless I forget.

“Protecting” my baby from the internet is an uphill battle with hazy boundaries, and it’s a battle I know I will ultimately lose. No one is “safe” from the internet. Your mileage may vary on this, but personally, I take comfort in the fact that when my child eventually does choose whether or not to go online, and how much, the internet will be a clean slate for them. Their parents will have posted no information about them online (apart, of course, from articles like this one acknowledging that they exist).

My wife and I wish we’d been much more cautious about the internet ourselves from our very first days using it, but it’s too late for us. All that information is out there, and there’s nothing we can do about it. However, even if our overprotective attitude about the internet ends up making no material difference in our child’s development, we hope, if nothing else, our caution is contagious. Some of the information available online is useful, and our child will one day learn to use the tools necessary to make use of it. In the meantime though, the internet doesn’t get to make use of our child.

Writer on the hypothetical question beat. Covering climate, war, and the future at VICE. Outbursts and opinions here. Plz never @ me mike.pearl@vice.com

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