Thursday, December 27, 2012

"[T]he media has an important responsibility not to republish gratuitous material that could damage a child’s long-term personal or professional prospects."

It looks like the national conversation emerging from the Newtown tragedy is one I've actually been going on about for some time (that's 2008, folks): the acceptability, or lack thereof, of parents writing tell-alls about their own children. Will Baude first made the connection with my "dirty laundry" tag, but it just keeps going. 

There's now a really wonderful post on the NYT parenting blog by Jillian Keenan, thanking her mother for not blogging about her own adolescent low point - the privilege of having been an adolescent in the pre-mommy-blogging days. She makes basically all the same points I've been making, but with an actual, you know, hook: there's something in her childhood that, if publicized at the time, would likely have ruined her reputation. With me, there's plenty I wouldn't have wanted my parents writing about, but nothing that, if publicized, would have impacted career prospects or what have you. If my parents had written about my age-15 woes (far too much "Designing Women," far too many futile crushes on boys who didn't so much turn out to be gay as they were already out, sometimes even dating each other, but I was just that oblivious), it would have turned my face beet-red, but that's about it.

So, back to Keenan. The best parts:
The issue of mental health in children and adolescents is critically important, and families who are struggling deserve nothing but help, support and understanding. But it frightens me that personal blogs and major media outlets have suddenly become acceptable venues for parents to publicly speculate about whether or not their children are mentally ill.
Parents should be the first line of defense to protect their children’s privacy, but sometimes they aren’t. In those cases, children have few avenues for protection or defense. Defamation cases involving minors can be tried in civil court, but because children have no legal standing, a parent or other adult would have to file the lawsuit. Those cases would also be very difficult to prove, since the potential long-term impacts of childhood defamation are hard to measure.
So, in the absence of other protections, the media has an important responsibility not to republish gratuitous material that could damage a child’s long-term personal or professional prospects. A few months ago, when I wrote an essay that described my relationship with my fiancé, he had to give his consent to The New York Times (in writing, no less) before they would publish it. Because children don’t have that opportunity, major news outlets need to exercise more discretion. Parental consent is important, of course. But it’s not the only important factor. A child should never be drafted against his will as a public symbol of mental illness and violence, or anything else.
The only slight thing I'd disagree with in Keenan's post is her use of the word "gratuitous." Whichever details (an act of near-violence, an arrest, a diagnosis, an especially bratty breakdown or an especially disappointing college rejection) could well be essential to telling whichever story; the "gratuitous" is the identification of a real-life child.

I'm thus going to reiterate my own suggestion that there oughta be a law. Newspapers are going to go on printing these things because everyone loves a parenting tell-all. These things go viral. Nothing like a juicy revelation under the guise of this is a very serious issue someone was courageous enough to bring up. These hyper-public confessions aren't going anywhere.


Andrew Stevens said...

Actually, I'm going to object to this:

If my mother had publicized that moment when I cut my arm, it could have devastated my future in incalculable ways. My college applications or job prospects might have been affected. New friends, classmates or colleagues could have judged me based on momentary mistakes that happened years earlier. The man who became my fiancé might not have kissed me that life-changing night on our college campus.

This is all extraordinarily unlikely. Six months from now, nobody's going to remember who "Michael" is. It's hardly going to follow him around his whole life. Don't get me wrong; I'm on her (and your) side here. But I would be much more impressed if someone could come up with an example or two of people whose lives were actually ruined by this sort of thing, because I suspect the number is pretty much zero and probably always will be. Parents shouldn't be telling stories like these because of the harm it might do to their relationship with their children and, quite simply, because it is wrong to tell other people's secrets for your own selfish reasons. I don't actually believe it will do any serious harm to the children themselves.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


We can certainly discuss the various issues parents' writing about kids brings up, and it would be useful to see if there are specific examples of jobs not gotten, etc., because of something a parent wrote. The problem is, this is tough to assess at this point, because mommy-blogging is, like all blogging, quite new, and before it, there was no large-scale equivalent. The kids are mostly still kids, I'd think, and have yet to apply for any jobs. Memoirs are an old form at this point, but there's simply no precedent for Googleability.

And we do have examples of people not getting jobs, dates, because of things that come up in online searches. It stands to reason that if you're identifiable in something that was at one point "viral" online, people you encounter later in life may know of you before meeting you in person. It doesn't seem at all far-fetched that if there's an article about someone having been this way or that as a child, it would give an employer, college-admissions committee, etc. pause.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Oh, and Andrew, I've got an example! From the comments to that post, an adult whose physical illness was very publicized as a child. Even if parents mean well, they can end up making it such that their kids' reputation always precedes them.

Andrew Stevens said...

Yes, I suppose that sort of thing can happen with a child who becomes a sort of local celebrity in a small town. The solution is to leave the small town, of course, as the commenter did. U.S. culture is so fractured that there just isn't a newspaper columnist or blogger with a reach large enough to hit more than a small fraction of the U.S. population. No matter how big a story I think something is, I can easily find a number of people who aren't even aware of it. Oh, I suppose the Obamas could do their daughters some serious harm if they wished and perhaps a few other big celebrities. This could change as people become more and more "plugged in" to Google, I suppose. Right now, the stories of people having Facebook photos come back to haunt them are interesting mostly because they're still so rare. Perhaps this will change, but the solution is just not to give Google-friendly details (like the full name of the child).