By Maria Morera Johnson
It began innocently enough: I became a mistaken identity due to typo on another person’s social media account.
The result: I am currently the face of a meme circulating in Latin America warning children they will be disciplined when they get home from their shenanigans. An internet meme (pronounced meem) is a picture or video with an added phrase that is ironic or funny and gets posted and re-posted until it becomes viral. One funny picture could end up with millions of views.
My amusement quickly turned to something else when I realized how innocently the mistaken identity led to a funny and confused twitter conversation, and how quickly it escalated to someone taking my profile picture, adding some text, and circulating my picture outside the initial small friends group where it originated. Within minutes, the meme was seen by a hundred people.
I felt violated to become the subject of someone’s joke, and shocked by how easily it happened. I also had the epiphany that the memes I often forwarded started with a person whose image was similarly hijacked. It was sobering to experience the other side.
As a catechist, I have often taught lessons on the dignity of the human person — how we are made in the image of God (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph1700). As an internet consumer, I have not always lived that lesson.
A HARD LESSON LEARNED
Sometimes my profile picture features others in it. The picture was set to a professional head shot when my image was taken without my knowledge, but I realize any picture in my feed is fair game to anyone because it is posted publicly.
My social media profile is public because, as an author, I enjoy engaging with my readers. Unfortunately, I have posted a great deal of personal information in my feed in the past —more than I am comfortable with now. And I have a great deal that I regret because it infringed on the privacy of those with whom I have close relationships, and extends to anyone with whom I’ve had contact and have included in pictures.
What seemed to me to be a harmless habit of sharing happy events has inadvertently placed anyone in my news feed at risk of becoming the victim of a meme, and to my fear (and disgust) the possibility of something darker in exposing minors to the whims and dangers of the internet.
What I knew to be a possibility at a theoretical level, I now know from direct experience: once we post online, it is no longer in our control.
We need to be mindful of this reality, especially as it pertains to children.
ADVOCATING FOR AWARENESS
The impact of my experience as an unwitting meme subject prompted me to evaluate my use of social media. I’m guilty of having used these social platforms to carefully curate an image that is more persona than real person. There was a time when I felt compelled to share every moment of my day, which often included sharing about others as well, usually without their knowledge or consent.
The impulse to over-share affected my family. My innocent motivation was to share special moments or fun situations. I didn’t take into consideration that some experiences should just be savored and enjoyed. I was posting like I was a reality show star — and I wonder if others thought my posts were as charming as I had decided they were in my mind. It led to hurt feelings on a few occasions, and a poignant lesson in unintentional long term consequences. Once a post is on the internet, it’s out there forever.
In my enthusiasm to post, I didn’t always get it right, but my recent curtailed social media use has been more intentional. I want to be an advocate for discretion in a time of laissez-faire attitudes toward posting anything and everything about our lives. As my generation gets older, and the extended family grows to include grandchildren, I am ever more aware of how much of our private lives we are making public.
Nevertheless, I want this advocacy to be common sense and not a one-size-fits-all proclamation, or worse, a condemnation of current practices. How much or how little we post is always a matter of personal choice.
I want to bring awareness to how varied those choices are, and that there is a growing number of parents who are choosing a narrower scope for their online sharing. Those of us who have been around social media since its inception know that protocols in behavior usually develop organically. We’re all learning as we go along, and this is a timely opportunity to evaluate where we are in this wide open field of social media.
PROMOTING CLEAR COMMUNICATION
My friends, in recent years, have transitioned from posting pictures of their children and their achievements and milestones, to posting pictures of their grandchildren. There is nothing sweeter in my news feed than seeing birth announcements or first-birthday smash-cake photos of precious little ones.
I looked forward to doing the same with my grandchildren.
Our daughter and son-in-law, however, established a no-sharing policy for their child. We may not publish any photos of our grandchild. They gave us their reasons in clear terms and encouraged an open dialogue with us to make sure we understood their position, and why.
To be clear, they only needed to share their position with us — providing the rationale was a courtesy that we appreciated. Maneuvering the sometimes rocky road of nurturing relationships with adult children can be filled with missteps on both sides. Efforts at good communication are essential.
Our adult children are living with parenting challenges we never experienced. We were well into our thirties when the internet became available, but our children are digital natives. What we considered a novelty, they experience as a tool.
The confidence and clarity with which my daughter and son-in-law expressed their desires regarding a social media ban made it easy for my husband and me to comply.
My recent misadventure with the meme drove home the wisdom of their choice for their child.
OUR CHANGING ROLES AS GRANDPARENTS
As we age and we find ourselves welcoming grandchildren into our lives, it’s a good practice to have a conversation about social media expectations.
Whether our adult children approach us, or we are the ones who propose the conversation, it’s important to understand at all times that our role as parents to adult children has shifted from one of authority figures to one of support. Our children are the ones making parental decisions for their children.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) instructs parents to recognize the dignity of their children:
Parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons.
This applies not only only to our respect for our adult children and the decisions they make for their families, but also speaks to the dignity of our grandchildren. They are born into a world where technology reinvents itself at alarming rates. Facial recognition and artificial intelligence, once the topic of science fiction movies, permeate the very apps we use to share pictures.
With this in mind, a wise approach to sharing pictures of our grandchildren should begin with a simple request for permission to do so.
ENCOURAGING CLEAR EXPECTATIONS
Developing a family social media plan can be as easy as saying, “Don’t post any pictures of the baby, please.”
Perhaps there are no limitations, “Post all the pictures you want!”
However, there may be parameters for posting pictures that fall between those two approaches. Only pictures from family events. Or no close-ups. Or cover faces with smiling emojis. Or repost only what the parents have approved and posted.
To be fair, most of us have been moving along and trying to figure it out as we go. This wouldn’t be the time to post away and apologize later. In the case of social media use, perhaps it’s wise to move forward with a plan. With that in mind, there are some reasonable guidelines to facilitate the conversation:
- Respect the parents’ authority in setting guidelines for their children.
- Ask for clarifications and examples if in doubt.
- Ask permission before posting.
- Support the parents and their policy, especially when pressured by peers to “post anyway, you’re a proud grandparent.”
At the end of the day, we all have the best interests of the child at heart. Parents understand the needs for their own family, and as grandparents our growing role is to be supportive. For my part, I am embracing the time-honored tradition of flipping open my wallet and sharing snapshots the Old School way.