Thursday, 9 February 2012

Should We Share Images of Our Children Online?

Over the past few days, women around the world have been holding 'nurse ins' to protest at the removal of breastfeeding images by social networking giant, Facebook. It seemed a bit ironic therefore, that while Lactivists were holding a global 'Boob Out', I was busy taking down photo after beautiful photo of breastfeeding women and children from this blog. Slowly but surely, I deleted images from a gallery of Breastfeeding Beyond One, and then from a comic post about nursing in public Boobylicious Baby Feeders Unique Portable Travel System. And I didn't stop there. I then erased photos from all of the guest posts on birth, and a few extras of parents and children from around the blog.

I've already said a little bit about my reasons for taking this action, but I'd like to give more detail in this post. Whilst it may at times make uncomfortable reading, I think it's relevant, not just to this blog, but to all of us who are parents and who, to one degree or another, share photos of our children in cyberspace.

So, let me tell you the story. The fact that there might be a problem, and that individuals might be finding this blog for all the wrong reasons, came to my attention in two ways. The first was by seeing, via a part of Blogger called 'Stats', the words and phrases that people were typing into search engines that were subsequently leading them to my blog. And the second was by two rather disturbing comments left on the post, Amazon, We Find Child Abuse Offensive.

Let's look at the issue of search terms first. Somehow it seems that the stars have collided and through a combination of naivety and coincidence I've managed to bring together in one place a collection of words that you wouldn't necessarily associate with a blog about parenting. Here they are:

breast / breast feeding - from a selection of breastfeeding posts
nude - from the  post Acceptance Nude about post pregnancy bodies
bending over naked - from a description of my own post natal body in Acceptance Nude
spanking - from a guest post about corporal punishment: Spanking, Regret and Parenting in Technicolour
child abuse - from the post title Amazon, We Find Child Abuse Offensive
xxx - on many of my replies to comments I have ended with three kisses - Triple X
the mule - this pseudonym has an association with child abuse

So, it turns out that someone googling any combination of the above terms could find their way to my blog. A while back, myself and blog followers on Facebook shared a titter about this, when I discovered that someone had found a picture of my wrinkly post birth tummy after googling ''bending over nude'. I thought this was a one off, but of course, it wasn't, and my laughter turned to concern when I started to see search terms such as 'breastfeeding xxx'.

Then there were the comments. The first, a few weeks ago, made reference to the connection between 'The Mule' and child abuse. I don't want to give any more detail about this connection, but the comment disturbed me, as it was clearly left by someone who either had ill intent towards children, or a sick sense of humour, or both. Then, about a week ago, another anonymous comment was left. This second comment was extremely unpleasant in its content, and left me feeling deeply concerned. Both comments were anonymous, and left on the post 'Amazon, We Find Child Abuse Offensive'.

I wondered what to do, and gave the matter much thought. Although the comments made no reference to breastfeeding or any of the other images on the site, I felt that what I had here was clear evidence that a person or persons will ill intent towards children were visiting this blog. I thought about my own photos. One image, in particular, ran through my mind. My eldest daughter, then three, snuggled close to me and beaming up at the camera whilst taking a break from her beloved Boobie. I couldn't bear the thought of anyone looking at this image in an abusive way. I then thought of all the other beautiful pictures, entrusted to me by women all over the world, of their intimate moments of breastfeeding and birth. I felt I had to act. And so, this was how I came to find myself deleting almost every image on this blog, while across the world women were protesting their right to share their nursing images in cyberspace.

Did I do the right thing? Most people seem to think - yes - that I had little choice under the circumstances, in particular as so many of the photos were of other people and their children. However, a few people have shared the thought, summed up well by this comment, "I refuse to live my life catering to the perversions of others. People can be turned on by literally ANYTHING, and I'm not able, nor willing, to wrap myself and my family in a bubble on the off chance something I say, do, or publish might get somebody off." Whilst I agree with this admirable desire for freedom, what I've been wondering about this week is whether we really understand the Internet, its impact, and its implications just yet. It feels so strongly a part of our lives that I found myself watching The Social Network the other evening and marvelling that they weren't in period dress. But this wasn't long ago, or even in the nineties that Mark Zuckerberg was coding out Facebook - it was 2004! This method of sharing and communicating, that many of us are confidently using every day, is only a few years older than my daughter. We think we know where we're at with it all, but like my daughter, we haven't really thought it all through, nor can we, with our understanding still so much in its infancy.

Let's take the example of images of breastfeeding. I'd be first in the queue to extol the virtues of sharing images of nursing. I created two online breastfeeding galleries on this blog, and have happily shared images of myself nursing my children on my Facebook account. Up until now, I've been convinced that doing this will help to normalise breastfeeding, help women to feel confident in their choices, and even help to improve breastfeeding success rates. Just like nursing in public? Right? Well...maybe not.

When we nurse in public, we get to look around and see who we are going to breastfeed in front of. This might be a small collection of people in a cafe, or a park, or a busy high street. We get to decide if we feel comfortable with the people who are around us and in the setting we find ourselves. We might feel that we are ok with nursing at our local toddler group, but would prefer not to feed our baby in a pub full of football fans on a Saturday night. Or we might be absolutely comfortable to nurse our baby anywhere at all (that's me by the way). But if we fall into this category, there is still a difference between nursing in public and sharing our breastfeeding images online. Because once our nursing pictures are on the internet, they can be viewed again and again by absolutely anyone. They can also be copied, shared, printed out, or even doctored, without our knowledge.

Still feel comfortable sharing your images? Let me tell you about another revelation that the events of this week have brought to me: there are people who find the act of breastfeeding itself erotic. Perhaps I'm exposing my naivety here, but I'd always assumed that people who had a problem with nursing in public were concerned about someone else seeing their (or their partners) exposed breast, a part of the body that is traditionally kept covered and considered erotic in our culture. But a quick google of 'breastfeeding xxx' enlightened me, and I was pretty shocked by what I found. I've always nursed in public and shared my breastfeeding images online because I was of the mentality - "I don't care if you get off by looking at my breast - I'm feeding my baby". But the idea that someone might be finding the act of breastfeeding itself sexually stimulating bothers me, because this involves my baby or child in the erotic experience.

I contacted breastfeeding guru Dr Jack Newman about my concerns. By coincidence, he was asking on his Facebook page for people to send him images of breastfeeding in unusual locations, exactly the kind I had just removed from my blog. I wanted to share with him a little of what had happened, and ask whether he knew what a large amount of pornographic content online is devoted to breastfeeding. And I wanted to know his view on my action of removing the images. He replied, "I don’t know if you should have taken it down. Maybe if people going to see these photos are doing it for the wrong reasons, they may, at least some of them, get the message that breasts are not just for titillation (sorry for the bad pun)." I'm a huge fan of Jack Newman, and I'm grateful to him for his response, but I felt he was missing the point. I'm desperately keen for positive messages about breastfeeding to be spread worldwide, but not at the expense of images of my children being used for someone's sexual gratification.

In child protection training, I have been given the message: be vigilant, and don't be tempted to talk yourself out of your uneasy feeling or suspicions. Above all, don't let your desire for something not to be the case be so strong that it blinds you to the actual truth. We can't afford to be naive about this, to the extent of hoping that someone viewing the images with ill intent might suddenly have an epiphany about the wonders of breastfeeding. I don't want to paint a picture of the internet as a threatening world full of perverted predators, but at the same time, there are issues here that need to be discussed, and not just regarding breastfeeding images, but indeed ALL of the images of children that we share in our online world. On the one hand we wouldn't be happy with a stranger taking photos of kids at the park, on the other we are happy to put photos of our kids at the park on Facebook; on the one hand we sign a consent form so our school can take photos and share them in a newsletter, on the other we add pictures to blogs that are viewed globally and without limit. We need to think these things through.

As always, I welcome your varied views. It's by talking that we can move things forward in positive ways. But please don't try to comment anonymously. I'm afraid that's no longer possible on this blog. If you've got something to say, you'll have to put a name to it, or keep your opinion to yourself. And for now, I'm really sad to say, you won't find any images here, now or in the future.


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18 comments:

  1. I am sure you will get a variety of replys - I have friends who have their life on FB and some who just use it as a form of glorified Email.

    Personally I am very wary about putting pics of my children up on Facebook - I wouldnt hand out photo's to strangers on the street so why would I post them somewhere that anyone (cos it really is anyone) can see them? A few have crept on via friends and family but I am considering contacting them and asking them to take them down...

    If my children grow up and decide they want to share their childhood photos then that is their choice - it is not up to me to make that decision for them.

    I personally think only you can answer the question on if it was the right thing to do as it is your blog and your responsibility.

    Thank you for a great post to make me think some more...

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    1. Thanks Jenski. I'm hearing that point being made a lot too, that perhaps these images belong to our children as much as or more than they do to us, and maybe it is not our right to share them so widely...
      Thanks again. x

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  2. I'm glad you took the pictures down but sad about it. Sad that it has to be a problem because it really is one of the most beautiful things. But glad because of all the reasons you listed about.

    Also, as a social worker, I am always aware of children's rights. Which sadly, are not as protected in this new digital age. I have viewed pictures of my mother nursing me, I'm happy she did and comfortable with these pictures. I would not be comfortable with her posting them on the internet for the world to see. And that is what I don't think many women out there think about when they post breast feeding pictures on the net.

    Yes, they may be comfortable with this (and that is GREAT if they are) but will their children be? Will their son be mortified when he's in high school and a picture of him nursing is posted on his facebook wall? He might be cool with it and he might be mortified. And if we are going to be posting pictures of our children we need to always be thinking about them! About their rights and their emotional needs.

    Anyways, sorry you've gotten some uncomfortable comments!

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    1. Thank you Canadian Mama, especially for your point about the rights of children, which Jenski above has also highlighted.
      Last week I was asked to be in a magazine article about extended breastfeeding and I said no for the same reason. I wasn't sure what light they were going to paint it in, but also, I felt that my breastfeeding relationship belonged to her as much as it does to me, that it was special, and that in years to come she might not like pictures of her nursing at 3 being in a magazine.
      Thanks again for your thoughts x

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  3. PS - Didn't mean to sound all righteous about FB - I just think it is a personal choice to be made by the individual...

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  4. I've recently removed my blogs from view, as well as any other online photo album with pictures of my girls. The only ones i've kept are facebook because of the privacy settings.
    my reason for it? Pinterest. I recently had a photo of me and my daughter post onto...basicly a porn board on pinterest and i cant get it off of there because noone from the site will contact me. Suddenly by seeing how easily things spread on pinterest scared the life out of me, and do I want my daughters googling themselves in a few years and finding their picture in places I didnt expect it to be?

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    1. Gosh, that is a worrying story, thank you for sharing it. I'm sorry that it has happened to you, but I'm afraid it illustrates my point very well. We can't think through all of these eventualities because this world is so new to us. We shouldn't feel so comfortable in it, unfortunately.
      Thanks again x

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  5. Thank you for your post :) I believe you have raised some extremely relevant points. I often wonder - because the internet is so new, is this why people are not more aware? Is it like communism? Will we soon see that it isn't all it seems and that there is too much chance for corruption? Perhaps in 10 years the sorts of things people post now will seem stupid and dangerous. I too have been weighing up exactly what you have explored in this post. Something I was considering a few days ago - I thought of the internet as like a huge room with the dimensions of a football field, then filled with miniscule pins. These were all the web addresses in the huge world of the web. So, how likely is it that my pin will be pulled out? How likely is it with search engines involved? How can I hide my pin better? Once a pin has been found once, that means that it is always easily located right? ...... So all in all, the internet is this vast thing. But when search engines are involved, what happens? I don't understand it all completely, but I too have become very worried about how normal people have jumped headfirst into this world. I dare say that awareness and attitudes will change as more and more child porography traced back to facebook is found. Already I believe most child pornography these days has been taken from facebook. Thank you for this post. As I was reading it I had a rather dark feeling, and I am frankly too afraid to google breastfeeding xxx. I am a new fan of your blog, and I wholeheartedly believe you did right in removing your images.

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  6. I just realised something unclear in my post - when I have written "child pornography" I refer to images which have been copied and distributed with the focus being of a sexual nature. I do not mean that child abuse is being photographed and shared on facebook. I mean that images are being taken without permission off of facebook, distributed amongst questionable people and have been found by police along with images of child abuse and other sexually explicit material.

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  7. Great read this morning and good to know about Pin interest (just got an invite~weird concept). I sure hope we get the right "to be forgotten" and are able to pull down stolen photos and information in the future.

    I was just tweeting how Huggie's diapers has a photo of a baby breastfeeding on it's size 1 package and I thought ~finally!

    I do use a photo of my kiddo for my profile picture as that face has morphed away into his new big child face. I like the concept of the image belonging to him...

    I love historical pictures of mothers and children who mostly are nameless and realize they too have morphed away. Our pictures will show how we live, what is important to us..how much to prune away?

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  8. Good post!

    I don't reveal my daughter's face in photos on my blog, nor her name as they are hers. I am even cautious about sharing her words and descriptions of her actions. My blog is *my* perspective on being a parent, it is not really about her at all although she features prominently in my life.

    As for paedophiles - I recognise that we live in a world where they exist, where they aren't easily identifiable. Of course they will do what they do. So must we do what we must to protect ourselves and the innocent. I work on the premise that they are watching, they are surfing, they are looking for naive parents/bloggers to provide them with suitable material. I will not be one of those people.

    Of course there is a part of me who wishes the world were different, who still uses the word "should"... but that aspect of me is outweighed by my commitment to living in the world as it is, here and now. My job is to protect myself and my daughter - this is where my power lies.

    Well done for recognising that what you intend is not necessarily what is perceived. Well done for taking action and removing the images. Getting real is always a good thing!

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  9. I've come to this late, although weirdly I was thinking about it again recently (due mostly to a post over at Potty Mummy, who had had a similar issue with search terms).

    I don't show my children's faces on my blog. Nor do I use their names, or mine. I make an effort not to reveal too much about where we live. I do not want us, and particularly them, to be easily identifiable - although I realise that anyone who already knows us, or anyone who really wants to, could find out with probably less than five minutes effort.

    But I also realise that I cannot police people's thoughts and desires. I am sure there are cookery blogs, or diy blogs, or gardening blogs out there that do it for a very small minority of people. We cannot control that.

    And it's just an image. It is not your child, or my child. It is a picture. And whatever someone thinks about that picture, they are not thinking it about the child and they are not hurting the child.

    You cannot stop these people by removing the pictures. They will find others somehow, and presumably, if they can't, what is much worse, they will make them themselves.

    I understand your choice, I really do. I'm afraid to say, though, that I think it's futile.

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    1. Thoroughly disagree with this reply by Plan B.
      The original poster said nothing about poliving people's thoughts and desires...whereever did you get that impression?

      She is merely saying that she feels uneasy about the fact that she can't control a sicko/pedophile getting off the the images of a breastfeeding mother and child.

      And I am seriously offended on the original poster's behalf that you said : "And it's just an image. It is not your child, or my child. It is a picture. And whatever someone thinks about that picture, they are not thinking it about the child and they are not hurting the child."

      What. The. EFFF?? I have no words for that right now. But I intend to get a cogent reply to be back.

      Sorry for my mini rant on your blog - I don't even know your name and why this blog is called the mule? I came by way of the Single crunch which is an AP/crunchy type blog :)

      *Danielle*

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    2. Hi Danielle
      Thanks for your comment!
      Of course I disagree too with Plan B...I do think it is damaging for a child to have their image misused, albeit indirectly damaging, it can't simply be discounted and shrugged off. I look forward to your cogent reply on that one anyway!
      My blog is called The Mule because that is the name my partner gave to me a long time ago when we had first met and I was struggling up a small mountain behind him with a large rucksack on my back! It stuck, probably because I am pretty stubborn, loyal, determined, Mulish, etc. I called my blog The Mule, not anticipating that it would be quite successful and just as a family in joke really. I think it fits somehow. So there you go. My real name is Milli.
      Thanks for stopping by, look forward to your further thoughts.
      x

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  10. You've really captured the complexities of this issue in this post - thank you! I know there are many people out there that need to know what you have shared, especially the part about social networking being only a few years older than our children, and we really don't know what the longer term repercussions are going to be. We are all part of a social experiment here, and while I'm not paranoid, it is important to really think about what we are doing when we engage with the Internet.

    The search terms used to arrive at one's blog are a fascinating study, and a lot of people don't understand that piece unless they have one. I wrote a similar post a while back, about please stop putting my child's photo on your Facebook page. (http://consciousparents.org/stop-posting-pictures-of-my-child-online-please/)

    Since doing so, surprisingly, a huge percentage of my new traffic to my site is from search queries asking about posting photos of children online, and how to stop that. Clearly there are many parents worried about this topic, and if they are finding MY site searching for that term, it means there is not a lot of other information out there about it. And there needs to be.

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    1. Thanks Erika for your comment.
      It is such a difficult issue, as many of the comments also reflect.
      Sorry to those above to whom I have not replied...I have to say that sometimes I have avoided replying as I don't always feel I know my OWN mind about this issue, I go round in circles, and part of me really wishes I could reinstate the breastfeeding galleries on this blog, for a start. But I can't do that with a clear conscience, in particular as EVERY SINGLE DAY people find my blog by searching for things that would really make your toes curl.
      I don't think the above commenter is right to say that it is futile. We all need to be aware of these issues and do what we can to try to prevent such activity. And I also disagree that it is 'just an image'. I'm not sure how far you could stretch that.
      For me the bottom line is that I feel more comfortable knowing that the people who find my blog each day looking for sexual images are not finding images of children or breastfeeding.
      Best wishes to you and all the other commenters!
      x

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