On a recent tour of my local daycare centre, a smiling, pig-tailed child-care worker showed a group of parents around the sand pit, the water-play station, the arts-and-crafts centre and the organic vegetable plot. Moving on to the nursery school's health and safety measures, she mentioned the fire exits and the staff's first-aid training, and then added: "And of course, we also have a 'no photo' policy."
"A what?" was the general response from the assembled parents. The child-care worker explained cheerily that staff members were forbidden from photographing or making videos of any of the children, and parents were expected to refrain from doing so at the annual holiday pageant and end-of-year open days. "We don't actually ask you to hand in your smartphones at the door, like some places," she said, smile firmly in place. "We trust that parents can resist the urge to take pictures all by themselves."
Resist the urge to take pictures of my kid onstage in the most adorable reindeer costume ever? Not likely, I thought.
Though apparently I'll have to. From a social-etiquette standpoint, taking or displaying pictures of other people's kids – even inadvertently – is rapidly becoming the new smoking. In an era when most adults give away our personal information and images like they're penny candy, many people (parents and public officials alike) are drawing the line at small children.
A recent U.S. news report found that most OB/GYNs were taking down their "baby walls" – those happy collages of babies they'd delivered, with photos donated by grateful parents – because of privacy concerns. And "no photo" policies are on the rise wherever children gather and play – most daycare and primary schools now have some version of them, whether it's formal or informal. Similar regulations are popping up in playgroups, day camps and even kiddie activities. At a local play centre I took the boys to recently, there was a sign that read: "We ask that you refrain wherever possible from taking photos of children who are not your own."
I suppose it's the logical conclusion of a shift that's been happening in my social circle for a while now. Even in private settings, like kids' birthday parties, I am now conscious of who's in the frame, since some of my friends choose not to share images of their children on social media – a practice I happily engage in.
I sort of get why some people are protective of their kids' images on Facebook, etc. – they are just more private, and it's nobody's business why. What I don't understand is the risk that comes with letting other parents take pictures of your kids in the nativity play. Or allowing the doctor who delivered your children to display their images on her wall – especially if you were the ones who sent her the photos in the first place.
A lot has been written about what we lose when we give away our privacy, but on the flip side, what do we lose when we stop trusting doctors, nursery school teachers and other parents in our community? What exactly are we trying to protect our kids from?
According to Jesse Brown, a Toronto-based media and digital culture journalist and father of two, "no photo" policies may not be the hysterical next step in political-correctness-gone-wild, but rather an imperfect response to a highly complex problem: How do we keep our kids safe in a digital future we cannot possibly understand?
"Perhaps these policies aren't entirely rational – I don't know anyone who's had a Facebook image of their kid end up in a pedophile ring – but it is reasonable to fear the unknown, especially where our children are concerned," he told me in a phone interview. "Essentially we are engaged in a grand experiment: We are giving up our privacy, and we don't know what that will mean in the future. Just because we haven't suffered any serious consequences from it so far doesn't mean we never will. The information is out there. There's a natural hesitation to put your kids out there into the unknown."
One potential reason, says Brown, is the risk of a video or photo going viral. Even if 17-million people share videos of your cute kids, it's still an invasion of their privacy – without their consent. "The kids on 'Charlie bit me' or 'David after dentist' are always going to be those kids. They'll have people joking about those [YouTube] videos for the rest of their lives," he points out. "And they didn't choose that."
And then there's the much more worrisome issue of how technology is evolving and what's going to happen to all these bits of ourselves we're leaving behind, imprinted on the digital universe. Developers are currently at work on improving facial recognition software for widespread use. "What if an algorithm could look at a picture, then scan through every file on the Internet and find out everything about you?" says Brown. "Would you feel differently about posting a picture of your kid then?"
Of course, keeping our children entirely out of the digital world isn't a realistic option for most people. As Mark Zuckerberg and the Google guys well know, most people want to share – me included. Having said that, I'm willing to play by the rules and respect all photo bans. I can even see where they might potentially protect my child from unknown risk. (Though perhaps not more than putting him in a helmet and padded suit every time he leaves the house, it must be said.)
Like most parents, Brown and his wife are trying to find a middle ground. "We tend to send cute videos to the grandparents and use Facebook as more of a seasonal greeting card for our wider circle," he said. But he adds that most attempts to shield their kids from the digital privacy-invasion will likely be futile once they can share online themselves. "At some point we're going to lose control of it completely," he says, "so why not control their privacy while we can?"