Tuesday, February 05, 2013

"[W]hen the privacy at stake belongs to that writer’s teenage children, the equation is different"

To put parental overshare into perspective, it's useful to remember how we-as-a-society treat other forms of overshare. Such as: a gynecologist complaining about a patient on Facebook. But not naming the patient or providing identifying information. Apparently a gray area rule-breaking-wise, and still being investigated.

It's easy enough to see this and think (as I do as well) that ethically if nothing else, a doctor shouldn't be writing even this much about a patient on Facebook in the first place. Yet the (well-received, it appears) NYT Magazine cover story this week includes a child's (unusual) full name, photos of mother and son, and a confession from the author, early on in the piece, that when her son was three, "I already thought of him, in the way that parents tend to categorize their children even as we tell ourselves we shouldn’t, as a little clingy and not especially athletic." And then however many words on this boy's medical problems. This is celebrated - how brave of the mom to come forth and all that.

Meanwhile, the NYT Parenting blog appears to be rethinking this topic. I know that lead blogger KJ Dell'Antonia saw my post, although I or course can't know if it had any impact. Dell'Antonia prefaces a "Motherlode" post about a teenager's self-harm with the following disclaimer:

To protect his family’s privacy, the author of this essay has asked that his name be withheld, and because of the sensitive, but important, nature of the subject, I’ve agreed. This is the first anonymous post since I’ve taken over here at Motherlode, and I expect such contributions to be rare. Even when an issue is delicate, a writer who wants to be heard on a topic should be willing to speak publicly. 
But when the privacy at stake belongs to that writer’s teenage children, the equation is different, and in order to hear directly from a parent dealing with cutting, I’ve chosen to allow this parent to speak for himself, but without a byline.
There's a lot to unpack. First, it's definitely progress that an editor has seen it as possible for a parents to write about difficult topics - and to make other parents in the same situation feel less alone - without an actual child being identified. I can't remember having ever seen a child's privacy acknowledged in something like this - maybe there will be anonymity to protect a parent from shame, but the kid? This is new, and most welcome.

But I don't totally follow Dell'Antonia's distinction between this story, and the others for which she'd insist on a byline. Is it because these are "teenage children" and not toddlers? Because they might Google themselves this week, as opposed to in five or ten years?

Once the issue of children's privacy is put on the table, violations of it become up for discussion, in a way they wouldn't be had the subject never been raised. A commenter writes:
I disagree with this: 
"Even when an issue is delicate, a writer who wants to be heard on a topic should be willing to speak publicly." 
A parent's first responsibility is to protect his or her children. If you have verified the identity of the contributor, readers of this column do not need to know who the family is, and the family should not be required to divulge private information to the world - and their neighbors, co-workers, etc.
Once it's clear that such items can be anonymous, it starts to seem bizarre that any of them are not.

2 comments:

i said...

I read that post, and my eye fell on the same comment. And I thought of you!

Phoebe said...

Ha!

Anyway, some other commenters seem to agree. It's clear enough that the comments themselves are given the benefit of the doubt and assumed to reflect real experience, even though they're generally pseudonymous.