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Posting about my son all over the internet (Status Update, Ep. 3)

There are photos and stories about him on my wife's and my Facebook feeds, Instagram and this very podcast. That could spell trouble down the line.

Sergei Konkov/TASS

The internet has changed everything from the way we communicate to the way we keep in touch with family and even the way we find help and communities. But it's also where parents to go to share cute photos of their kids and write about them.

That's OK when they're kids, but how will they feel when they're older?

Posting about my son all over the internet (Status Update, Ep. 3)

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Ian

This story begins a little over three decades ago. Back in the early '80s.

Frank Sherr

I was right there, at the birth. I was really excited about it. I felt very good about it. It was beautiful. A very exciting thing for me.

Ian

That's my father, Frank. I sat him down one day and asked him how he'd told the world I'd been born.

Frank

It was 5:01 in the morning. So it wasn't until the early morning I was able to do it.

Of course, I made a phone call. To my mom first, in New Jersey. She was very excited. And she made all the preparations to come out. And then to Eleanor.

Ian

That's my godmother, Elly, by the way.

Frank

I didn't do much at all. It went by word of mouth. As I remember, it was strictly by phone, that's all, and everyone was very excited and very happy and they couldn't wait to see you.

Ian

And in case you're wondering whether he was going around giving out photos of an adorable little me?

Frank

No, I don't remember sending photos to people like we have today.
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Ian

OK, fast forward to May 2016 when my son, Theodore, was born. We did a lot of the same stuff my father's generation did: I cut the umbilical cord, we counted toes and fingers, we cried, we marveled, we cuddled...

But then... not too long after he arrived on the scene -- about an hour after he was born, actually -- I sent a bunch of texts to close family and friends.

And the next day? I wrote an email announcing Theodore's birth. I even set up a special account so people could send welcome notes to him. That's right, my son had email before we signed his birth certificate. I figured he could read them when he grew up -- you know, in like 20 years.

And a couple days after that, I introduced little Theodore to Facebook. I even created a special group so we could share photos of him. It's called: We Love Theodore. I think it's pretty awesome.

This is Status Update, a show about how tech is changing the way we raise our kids. OK, it's actually about how I'm raising my kid. I'm Ian Sherr, longtime tech reporter, editor, husband and now tech-obsessed dad.

So every once in a while I start asking myself: What's the right etiquette for posting about our children on the internet?

And I don't just mean ... ahem... status updates, but photos, tweets and all that other stuff too.

It's no question all this social media, blogs and checking in have completely changed the way we communicate. But at what cost?

And is it even worth it?

First let's talk about scale of how big all this is. About 2 billion people, for example, use Facebook alone at least once a month. That's a group larger than any country on earth.

And while there's not much data about blog entries or all that other stuff, we are posting a lot of pictures.

In 2014, it was estimated that more than 650 billion photos are uploaded to the web's top websites each year. And it's only grown since then.

All this posting on the internet helps us create a brand for ourselves -- be it the nerdy nice guy or the explorer type or whatever else. And, as I realized pretty quickly, we're branding our kids too. Even if they don't know it.

Wondering how? Well, my son already has a brand. He's the smiling cute little kid with a secret Facebook group named after him. And it's filled with 150 adoring family and friends watching as my wife and I digitally gush about him -- pretty much all the time.

Now, we aren't the only people doing this. Facebook is the largest photo site in the world after all, and it has features like the ability to identify a child with a tag in a photo, allowing friends and family to follow a growing stream of pictures.

If you're like me, you're used to seeing a lot of baby stuff in your Facebook feed these days. Even Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, has posted quite a few pictures of his daughter, Max, since she was born last year.

Linda Murray

So I have a teenage daughter, and she has complete approval over anything I post. So if I want to put a picture up, she has to say she likes the picture, she has to pick the one she wants. Sometimes she'll ask for a reshoot or a different angle and then approve the picture that goes up.

Ian

That's Linda Murray, the SVP of consumer experience and global editor in chief of Baby Center. You may know it as one of the web's oldest and largest baby-information websites.

She said the playful posting of photos my wife and I do are OK for now. But once Theodore grows up and hits about seven or eight years old, it's gonna change.

Linda

I think kids are naturally starting to think about: "Well, what does everyone think of me?" They're felling judged, they're judging other kids. I think that's developmentally a normal time for it.

Ian

Talking to her and other parents, one thing I've learned is that it's good to start thinking about this stuff now.

It's not just how our kids feel though. There's a growing movement afoot to get parents to think more about all sorts of stuff before they post online.

And for good reason.

TV News Report 1

Listen to these statistics: They show that on social media crime in 2014, 80 percent of burglars have admitted to using Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media to find potential victims.

TV NEWS REPORT 2

Police are searching for two men who ransacked a home in New Albany, Indiana, outside Louisville, after the homeowners posted on Facebook that they wouldn't be there for the night.

Ian

And it's true there are real dangers.

The Australian government, for example, found that half -- half! -- of the photos recovered from pedophile websites are stolen from you and me -- innocent parents, sharing our kid's photos online.

So yeah, when people tell you they're not posting about their kids, maybe don't push it.

But before you even consider all that, there's something else to keep in mind too -- what if your kid grows up not wanting all this attention? Could it be bad that I'm posting pictures of little Theodore all over Facebook?

One person looking into it is Stacey Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. She found that in France, for example, the strict privacy rules there mean you could break the law by posting photos of your kid online.

Sacre bleu!

Stacey Steinberg

I think that it's only warnings at this moment

Ian

And it's not just France. A recent study found that a growing number of kids are "really concerned" about what their parents are choosing to post.

This problem has been around longer than the internet though. For example, a hundred years ago, there was this child in New York named William James Sidis. He was, by all accounts an absolute genius. He read the New York Times at 18 months old, he was a whiz at math in his childhood, he graduated from Harvard at the age of sixteen, and he apparently could speak more than 40 languages when he was an adult.

As his accomplishments grew, so did the number of news articles that were written about him, This turned him into a celebrity. This is important, because when he got older, he decided he wanted to live a more private life.

That didn't stop The New Yorker from writing about him for a "Where are they now?" type story. He sued for invasion of privacy, among other things, and he lost, because the courts said he'd been turned him into a celebrity as a kid and so he had no reasonable expectation of privacy as an adult. He lost his appeal too.

Now my parents may have wanted to sing my praises all over the place, but they could only do so much since, y'know, I'm not a genius and their only options were snail mail or physically handing out photos to people.

And it never had the chance to go viral because back then, it took a lot of work to get the attention of casting agents, producers or modeling agencies.

Now all you have to do is upload a video.

Even worse, you may not even be the one doing it. A couple years ago, a Louisiana-based photographer shared holiday portrait of a husband, wife and their three children. The mother and two daughters had green tape on their mouths, while the grinning dad was holding a sign that said "Peace on earth." Oh and the boy was giving a thumbs-up.

Stacey

It made some sort of implication that this is a happy holiday because the women are quiet and it was absolutely abhorrent.

You have to wonder how those children are going to feel when that image is front and center on Google as they get older.

Ian

OK, so we've looked a little at the bad side.

But there are some times when this open and connected internet culture is good, right?

Obviously there are just tons of cute photos out there, and they're not all Theodore, although he is the cutest.

And I cannot say enough how good it feels to have family keeping up on Theodore through that special secret Facebook group. I know, it's just Facebook. It doesn't replace real-life interaction.

But a lot of them are far away from us, and yet still I feel that if I ever needed to turn to them for help, advice or support, I know they'd be there. That's worth something right?

The reality is that people turn to the internet for that very type of thing all the time. Over the years, I've stumbled upon a lot of people who are genuinely hurting that pour their souls into these sometimes gut-wrenching posts.

There's good and bad to those too. A mother writing about her struggles against, say, bedwetting might be embarrassing if it's dug up 40 years later when that person is running for president of the United States or something, right? Sure.

But there are times when sharing too much about your kid can help you find the community you need.

Let's think back to 2012. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, there was talk about how Adam Lanza, the shooter, had behavioral issues. Severe behavioral issues. He also cut himself off from his family and was reportedly fascinated with mass shootings like the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999.

It was hearing those details, about who Adam was, that changed the life of Liza Long, a teacher and, until that day, an anonymous blogger on her website, The Anarchist Soccer Mom. Adam sounded like her son.

Liza Long

I just hit my head on my desk and I started to cry because that day my arms were covered in bruises and bite marks and my whole body hurt but it was really my heart that was hurting because I had this amazing kid, this little boy who I just knew was such a special and amazing kid who I loved like every mom loves their kid. Who was maybe headed for jail or worse. And I could not get help.

Ian

So she wrote about it. She talked about how he could go from being sweet and loving to pulling out a knife and threatening to kill her, as he did once after she asked him to return overdue library books. That wasn't all. He also threw unbelievable tantrums.

When she finally brought him to the hospital for help, he tried to convince the staff he was fine and she was lying. When she called him up to check in after his first day of treatment, he swore he'd -- quote -- get his revenge.

Her story went viral. And the title that was used: "I am Adam Lanza's Mother."

Liza

I can't stress enough the extent I felt completely alone, and I do mean completely alone. There's something strange about feeling so deeply personal with the entire world, which is in effect what I did.

Ian

There's good that came out of it.

Not only did the post help bring attention to mental health issues and turn some of the conversation from blaming Adam Lanza's family to how we can help these kids, it also helped Liza connect with someone who could finally diagnose and begin to treat her son.

Liza

All the sudden, I had the support group I'd never had for 10 years, feeling like I was alone, feeling ashamed, suffering in silence, not knowing how to connect to resources and all the sudden I was in this group.

Ian

OK, so where do we go from here? Well, Bahareh Keith, a pediatrician at Randall Children's Hospital in Oregon, has researched these issues with Stacey. She says we just don't know enough about how posting on social networks affects our kids, after all, the first children born after Facebook was founded are have only just become teenagers.

Since we don't definitively know what to do, she says we just need to be thoughtful. Try to think of what they'd want and maybe even give them some veto power. Make them a part of this.

Bahareh

My kids are fairly small. But if I think of him as a 13- or 14-year-old before I post -- and I am still posting, but I think that now -- I think, OK is there anything embarrassing? Can they identify where he's at?

And then I always think: is his 13-year-old self going to be OK that I posted this. And if the answer's "mmm, I don't know" then I don't post that picture. I post something different.

Ian

Alright, I figured there was one more person you might want to hear weigh in on this.

Laura Sherr

Laura Sherr, I'm your wife, and Theodore's mom.

Ian

So, we just listened to this whole episode, and it talks about all the things we're doing today: We're posting about him, we're putting stuff on the internet, we're dealing with a lot of these things. What was your reaction? Was there stuff you never thought about before?

Laura

I had read about how so many pedophiles find public photos on the internet previously and I think it makes me comfortable his Facebook group is private, so if we don't trust that person then they're not getting that content.

Even so, I'm thinking about the photos that I post. So, remember last week, Theodore had some time in his birthday suit on the floor, and there's nothing cuter than a bare baby bum, so I took a picture. But that was one I chose not to post on Facebook because, even privately, I just felt like that wasn't something I'd want to post without thinking about how he might feel about that one day even though it's a totally appropriate photo and standard naked baby picture.

When he gets older and has an opinion and asks "hey mom, I don't want you to post any photos of me," that's a big ask from him because he's my family and that's part of my experience. But out of respect for him then that's a conversation we'd try to have and find some sort of comfort level. But kids are always going to be embarrassed by what their parents share so there's a level, somewhere.

Ian

So, veto power may not be absolute.

Laura

I think it depends on the attitude. If he's being a diva -- well, if he's a diva, then he'll like sharing all the photos.

Ian

Or if he's emo, and he doesn't want anyone to know because the world is dark and it's not worth anything anyway.

Laura

There's no way this kid is going to be emo. (Laughs.) He's so happy.

Ian

And thus we have branded him further.

Laura

(Laughs). Yeah.

Ian

Status Update is produced by me, Ian Sherr.

Editing by Connie Guglielmo. Facebook likes by Laura Sherr. And baby squeaks by Theodore Sherr.

Before we get to the rest of the credits, I just want to say: This podcast isn't possible without you. Yeah, you taking that selfie. Or maybe you scrolling through that feed. Whoever you are, I want to hear what you think.

Tweet at me: @iansherr, or email me through CNET's website.

The ridiculously cute podcast logo was shot by James Martin, with art support from Justin Herman and Mollie Gilbert.

That fun xylophone theme song you heard at the beginning was by Lee Rosevere, and the piece you hear right now is by Jahzzar.

The other music in this episode came from the amazing artists who contribute to the Free Music Archive. I've put links to each of their pieces in this show's transcript, which you can find online at CNET.com along with some other helpful links about things we discussed in this episode.

You know, CNET makes a bunch of other podcasts too, including the 3:59, which gives you the day's tech news in under four minutes. CNET also has tons of tech news, reviews, insights and analysis -- and it's all there just waiting for you.

Thanks for listening. Until next time.

Music in this episode

"Curiosity" by Lee Rosevere

"Puzzle Pieces" by Lee Rosevere

"Useless Love" by Steve Combs

"As I Figure" by Kevin MacLeod

Satie's "Gymnopedie No 1" by Kevin MacLeod

"Cylinder Five" by Chris Zabriskie

"Siesta" by Jahzzar

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